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Any lingering hopes that something might turn up, to turn round Tory fortunes, have been dashed. And any lingering thoughts that maybe next month’s budget might mitigate the disaster facing the party look, frankly, silly. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the only surprise is that Labour’s setbacks of last week made no difference whatever.

The line’s been used in this column before, but it bears repeating right now. One-time Prime Minister Jim Callaghan grimly foretold his defenestration at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, thus:

‘There are times … when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.’

Nursing his side’s bloody nose in the wake of last week’s crushing by-election defeats, Rishi Sunak could be forgiven for sharing such misgivings.

He might have entertained a flicker of hope a few days earlier, given the Labour leader’s gauche handling of his awkward situation regarding the forthcoming Rochdale contest.

Keir Starmer’s two-day wobble about his side’s candidate, Azhar Ali, following revelations about the man’s apparently anti-Semitic views, didn’t play well. Just hours after the party insisted it would stand by its man, suddenly it wouldn’t.

And the Conservatives gleefully conflated this about-turn with the way Starmer finally and equally abruptly gave up on his plans to spend billions on climate-friendly measures.

No question, he had had his most tricksy week since taking the leadership. Because both problems exposed his greatest weakness – a lack of political second sight, which in someone who’s been around longer would be second nature.

Not that the Tories’ endless punching that bruise made the slightest difference, as it turned out. The swing against them in Wellingborough was the second highest in any by-election since the Second World War.

The fact that it was only held because the punters had chucked out the existing MP after he’d been accused of behaving extremely badly towards one of his own staff didn’t help. Obvs.

But it was still part of a grisly pattern. As it brought the number of government defeats to its highest level since the swing voters’ swinging sixties heyday.

Nor, incidentally, were the voters in the other local contest, triggered by the sitting Tory MP’s resignation in protest at Sunak’s not very green credentials, fussed about Starmer’s also reigning back on that front.

Of course the Rochdale by-election in less than a fortnight can’t do Labour any favours, whatever happens.

It’s indicative of the topsy-turvy helter-skelter nature of politics just now that until a week or so back this contest didn’t even hit the radar, as it’s only being held thanks to the death of the sitting Labour MP, who had a strong majority.

Now, however, while Mr Ali’s name is still on the ballot paper in the Labour bit, he won’t be allowed to represent the party. Seems a bit daft, but by the time his crackpot conspiracy theory about the Israelis came to light it was too late to replace him.

But he could yet get in, as a third of the voters in Rochdale are Muslim.

Then again, he’ll be up against one of parliament’s most flamboyant mavericks, George Galloway. Remember him? The guy who once pretended to be a pussycat on Celebrity Big Brother.

Cringeworthy though that episode was, Galloway is a formidable political operator who has in the past been a thorn in the side of successive Prime Ministers. And, given that his last three wives were Muslim, he is in with a chance.

Never let it be said that Rochdale doesn’t have form. Remember it was there that Labour’s Gordon Brown got caught in a hot mike bind accusing a voter of being a bigot.

Go back a bit further, and we find the seat once represented by one Cyril Smith. The erstwhile much-loved Liberal who turned out to be a serial pedophile.

But in the scheme of things this contest probably counts for little, when set against the big event of next month. The budget.

More or less resigned to a really nasty night in the by-elections, the Tories were at least hoping for a bit of a bounce with the tax cuts both Sunak and the Chancellor have been hinting at for weeks.

But the Office for Budget Responsibility took the wind right out of Jeremy Hunt’s sails by telling him the economy’s in recession. Meaning, it’s widely reported, he accepts he can’t after all deliver the goods.

Also, the voters seem to be getting the message – that whatever tasty little titbits he does manage to toss their way will have to be paid for in yet more cuts to public services.

And that dreary backdrop probably goes pretty much all the way to explaining why, come what may, the Tories remain some twenty points behind Labour in the polls.

It’s not that the punters think Keir Starmer’s the sexiest thing since sliced bread. All the polls indicate that they don’t. Just that they’re so fundamentally fed up with the government that the Labour lot really can’t be any worse.

Feed into that mix the rise in popularity of the Reform Party, which picks up where Nigel Farage’s UKIP left off. And bear in mind that these guys are not up for doing deals with the Tories.

What that means is that those ex Labour voters who took Boris Johnson on trust, then felt let down because immigration remains high, could well take their custom elsewhere.

Little surprise the mood in the parliamentary Conservative party is currently hovering between downcast and downright despair.

But if it looks like they’re reaching rock bottom it seems they’re not alone.

Except that in Australia’s Gold Coast the ladies are not taking anything lying down.

Faced with calls from someone they’ve really taken against for a ban on their dear little G-string bikini lower halves, they’ve staged a unique and singularly eye-catching protest.

Throngs in throngs did their ‘fight them on the beaches’ bit last week, sauntering through the sand with a cheeky look – both on their faces and elsewhere.

And in case anyone sort of missed the point, or whatever, they named their demo: ‘Free The Peach.’

So naughty. But such fun.


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