David Ruffley’s announcement that he is to stand down as MP for Bury St Edmunds has prompted a few calls for a snap by-election in the constituency.
Ruffley has said he intends to remain an MP until the general election. Ukip and the Greens have urged him to go now, and for understandable reasons: a contest would give both parties a dose of publicity during the fallow summer season, and one they must hope would give their respective poll shares a boost.
Historically, Bury St Edmunds has always been a Conservative seat. It has been held by Tories continuously since representation was reduced to one member by the 1884 Third Reform Act.
But it hasn’t always been a safe Conservative seat.
Ruffley’s predecessor as MP, Richard Spring, enjoyed a majority of 18,787 at the 1992 general election.
Come 1997, this was slashed to a mere 368 thanks to an enormous 14.6% swing to Labour.
1997 was when Ruffley first became MP for the seat. He must have wondered whether he’d inherited one of the most marginal seats in the country. Instead he was able to win a sequentially bigger majority at each subsequent election.
Something interesting happened in 2010, however, when Labour, long-time second-place challenger, slipped into third place behind the Liberal Democrats:
I’d expect Labour to move back above the Lib Dems come the 2015 election. It’s the only one of the main parties to have already selected its candidate: former councillor Bill Edwards.
But whether Labour reclaims second place depends on how well Ukip do. And this is why there won’t be a by-election before next May. The last thing David Cameron and his advisers want is another event like Newark, eating up time and resources and giving Ukip four weeks’ worth of extra exposure.
Not that Ukip would win here, even if there was a by-election. Its spokespeople probably suspect as much, and are calling for a contest merely to stir up a bit of trouble. In recent by-elections prompted by the resignation of disgraced MPs, voters have been noticeably loyal, returning the same party to power in both Eastleigh and Newark. I have a feeling they would do the same in Bury St Edmunds.