Somerton & Frome by-election: A bellwether for next year’s general election?

The battleground of Somerton and Frome could prove to be a bellwether for the Conservative’s success in the next general election

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

After an unconvincing performance in 2010, the Conservatives ‘took control’ in 2015 and have kept a tight hold on power ever since. However, allegations of misconduct, sleaze and sloppiness have seen the man in charge step down and a massive majority slipping through that clenched fist.

But this is not a summary of the Tories in government. It is the story of the West Country constituency of Somerton and Frome - the place I call home.

Currently one of three impending by-elections, which many predict could see a trio of losses for the Tories, the results of the battle for this rural Somerset seat could be a bellwether for next year’s general election.

It’s rare a single vote, my own included, feels like it could have such a powerful effect on the future of the country.

David Warburton won control of Somerton and Frome in a landslide win during the 2015 election, which saw David Cameron and Ed Milliband go head-to-head. While his party took the helm with a small majority, Warburton presided over an 18-point swing against the Liberal Democrats, securing a 53 percent share of the vote. In 2017 and 2019, he held his seat convincingly, increasing his share.

However, mirroring the trajectory of the Conservative Party polling - and of Boris Johnson’s premiership - Mr Warburton’s reign was cut short after allegations of sexual harassment against the former music teacher emerged in April 2022, leading to the Conservative whip being suspended and, ultimately, to his resignation.

A Sunday Times report alleged Warburton harassed three women and used cocaine and in a Daily Mail interview upon resigning, he admitted to the drug taking after drinking “incredibly potent Japanese whisky” in a situation his wife described as a “honey trap”. He denied all of the other allegations.

Following a formal complaint by a member of staff in Warburton’s Westminster office, parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) opened an investigation into four allegations of sexual misconduct, and two bullying and harassment claims against him.

However, despite the parliamentary commissioner for standards upholding three of the allegations, the saga rumbles on as earlier this week, the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) found the investigation to be ‘materially and procedurally flawed’, saying it made “no findings on the substance of the complaint” and ordered the commissioner to open a new probe.

But back in Somerset, the 14 months since the allegations emerged have seen discontent grow.

Earlier this year, Frome Town Council - one of the emerging cosmopolitan towns in this neck of the woods - unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Warburton, with councillors accusing him of failing to hold constituency surgeries since his suspension, which he denied.

Calls for his resignation came after a year of absence from Parliament, and more votes of no confidence followed in towns like Langport, before he finally announced his intention to step down last month, claiming he had been denied a fair hearing.

As the latest election polls reveal the gulf between Labour and Conservatives widening, perhaps voters are seeking a break from the Tory sleaze and Partygate revelations that have rocked the party in power.

An escape, perhaps, from the feeling we’re not all living by quite the same rules. And in these parts at least, an escape from an MP who appears MIA.

The Somerton and Frome constituency has traditionally been a two-horse race - Liberal Democrats held the seat from 1997, until Warburton’s win in 2015. This time around sees councillor Sarah Dyke running for the Lib Dems, with fellow councillor Faye Purbrick on the ballot for the Conservatives, as the only candidates with a realistic chance.

A huge swing would be needed for Dyke to emerge victorious - Mr Warburton secured a majority of more than 19,000 in 2019 - but the bookies say yet another defeat is the most likely outcome for the Tories.

If this neck of the woods should follow the form of neighbouring Devon, where Lib Dem Richard Foord overturned a Tory majority of more than 24,000 in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, it could be a worrying premonition for the party in power.

We all know what happened in 2019. Perhaps more worrying for the Tories, we all know what happened in 1997. And the famous Somerset Levels could this month provide the best indication yet of a landslide on the horizon…