IT IS not unknown for an incumbent UK governing party to lose a Westminster by-election.

Yes, OK, point taken, but the Tories have just lost two contests on a single night in very different parts of England.

I know, I know, mid-term blues. And remember the reasons for the by-elections. One Tory MP viewing porn in the Commons, another jailed for sexual assault.

All true. But Labour regained Wakefield, a key battleground seat. And the LibDems recorded a record-breaking swing to win in Tiverton and Honiton. This feels like the mid-90s. Pre Blair.

Give Johnson a chance, eh? He’ll come back from Rwanda and take charge. He’s still a winner.

Is he, though, is he? Folk said he was the reason they were voting against the Tories. And what about Oliver Dowden. A dawn resignation by the party chairman? Not good.

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Add a few choice adjectives and there you have the dilemma confronting the Conservative Party. Hold that confidence vote again and Tory MPs would discard Boris Johnson.

Yet still he clings to power. Distrusted by many, loathed by some. No personal faction, backing him regardless. Just fading charm, energy and a waning Commons majority.

As of today, his chances of a further term as PM look slight. Which, for Mr Johnson, will only amplify the need to be seen to address the economy, the cost of living and – the matter of the moment – strike action.

That could still a determining factor in future elections, if the furore over the PM’s character subsides.

Consider the intriguing triangular chess contest involving the Conservatives, the SNP and Labour.

It is not always easy to discern a coherent economic approach from the Conservatives. The Prime Minister appears more reactive than structured. Internal critics say these by-elections demand change.

Perhaps that might happen as the pandemic recedes – should this hideous plague ever finally relent and release us from its noxious thrall.

Read more from Brian Taylor: The cold calculation by Tory MPs that surely awaits a damaged, mortified PM

Perhaps it will be possible to discern key objectives from the approach to the rail strike.

Firstly, a calculated contrast between seeming to stay aloof from the dispute itself while, of course, channelling the negotiations by financial constraints and moves to permit agency workers to replace strikers.

Apparently inert yet palpably involved. Almost a metaphor for contemporary Conservative thinking.

This has been seized upon by the other points in the triangle. Keir Starmer challenged the Prime Minister over the absence of appointments in his diary to intervene in the dispute. Nicola Sturgeon accused the Tories of deliberately neglecting their duties in pursuit of an “anti-union” agenda.

But there is more from the UK governmental perspective. The Chancellor wants to cut costs – as do all holders of his office. But he is notably keen in that he needs slack to fund vote-winning tax cuts.

So UK Ministers advocate railway reform. Unions say they are prepared to talk about changes to working practices but demand a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies upfront.

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Then the overtly partisan. Boris Johnson is now more desperate than ever to portray Labour as the friend of the strikers, hoping that thwarted travellers will vent their anger at the ballot box.

Keir Starmer is equally determined to avoid such a fate. Hence his instruction to his Westminster front-benchers to stay away from RMT picket lines.

There is long history here. Tensions within Harold Wilson’s Labour Cabinet over the White Paper, In Place of Strife, which sought to regulate union action.

The Winter of Discontent at the end of the Callaghan government in 1979. Sir Keir is adamant that this will not now be made inglorious summer by the current disputes.

Mick Lynch of the striking RMT union says Labour needs to find a way to reconnect with its working-class support.

Sir Keir is less than impressed. Firstly, he says that the Wakefield victory shows a party devoted to the authentic interests of the working class.

Secondly, he may conclude that Labour’s broader task in England is to regain Red Wall voters who switched to the Tories – and that they are perhaps unlikely to be attracted by a further move to the Left.

However, it is all rather uncomfortable for a party founded by trades unions. Which is perhaps one reason why Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, opted to attend a picket line at Waverley Station.

No doubt he had Scottish Labour’s traditionalist approach in mind. But there is more to it than that. We are back to our triangle.

Keir Starmer needs to oust the Tories. He needs to depict Boris Johnson as incompetent and untrustworthy. Anas Sarwar endorses that endeavour. Indeed, he regularly cites the election of a UK Labour government as a counterpoint to independence.

But, on a daily basis in Holyrood and around Scotland, Anas Sarwar’s core enemy is Nicola Sturgeon. Previous Scottish Labour leaders sometimes pretended, loftily, that the SNP could be ignored, that only fighting the Tories ultimately mattered.

They blundered in so doing. They lost ground. They lost seats. The SNP usurped their historic role as the defenders of the Scottish working class.

So Anas Sarwar treads a tricky path. He must burnish his party’s proletarian credentials while staying somehow in step with a UK leader who needs to present a more nuanced image.

As for the SNP, the rail strike offers a ready-made opportunity to declare a plague on both other houses in the triangle.

Specifically, they can say that this dispute only extends to Scotland because Network Rail is owned by the UK Government. They can demand an interim devolution of power over track and services while arguing generally that an independent Scotland would manage industrial relations better.

That premise may yet be spotlighted should disputes extend to public services in the direct control of Holyrood.

The overall atmosphere is one of anger and anxiety. Understandable fears about rising inflation linked to subterranean worries fuelled by the pandemic but perhaps dating back to the banking crisis of 2008.

Right now, especially after these by-elections, that mood of public anger is demonstrably directed at Boris Johnson’s Tories. He looks to be heading for the exit. Still searching, with an eagerness which can amuse or exasperate, for a diversion, a siding.