Sunak’s Conservatives lose two out of three seats in key UK vote

Britain’s governing party avoids wipeout in special polls seen as test of public support before next year’s general elections.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak‘s governing Conservative Party has lost two strategically important parliamentary seats in a trio of special elections, but avoided a wipeout after holding onto former Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s seat in suburban London.

Though the main opposition Labour Party and the smaller centrist Liberal Democrats overturned massive Conservative majorities to win a seat apiece, the Conservatives found some comfort in their narrow success in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London.

“No one expected us to win here,” Sunak told reporters on Friday. “Westminster has been acting like the next election is a done deal, the Labour Party has been acting like it’s a done deal. The people of Uxbridge just told all of them that it is not.”

Still, the results of Thursday’s elections, if replicated at a likely general election next year, would see Labour emerge as the biggest single party, possibly with a sizeable overall majority.

Despite holding onto Johnson’s former seat by just 495 votes, the three election results show the Conservatives losing ground across a broad range of voters: suburban Londoners, small-town dwellers in the north of England and rural residents in the southwest.

Sunak headed straight off to the scene of his party’s sole electoral success and noted that governments often find midterm elections difficult.

“The message I take away is that we’ve got to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people,” he said in a cafe in Ruislip.

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the House of Commons in London [File: Jessica Taylor/Handout/UK Parliament via Reuters]

Labour’s leader Keir Starmer is also heading off to Selby and Ainsty in northern England, where 25-year-old candidate Keir Mather managed to secure the party’s second largest swing at a special election since 1945.

“This is a historic result that shows that people are looking at Labour and seeing a changed party that is focused entirely on the priorities of working people with an ambitious, practical plan to deliver,” Starmer said after the result was announced.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats took Somerton and Frome in southwest England on a similarly large swing away from the Conservatives.

“The people of Somerton and Frome have spoken for the rest of the country who are fed up with Rishi Sunak’s out-of-touch Conservative government,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.

What is clear about those two elections was that voters from both opposition parties clearly backed the party most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate.

Facing this level of tactical voting, the defeats will likely leave many Conservative lawmakers rattled before the likely national vote next year.

The defeats do not mean a change of government, since the Conservatives still have a majority in the House of Commons.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions, at the House of Commons in London
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the House of Commons [File: Jessica Taylor/Handout/UK Parliament via Reuters]

For months, opinion polls have been giving Labour a double-digit lead – sometimes up to 20 percent – nationwide over the Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010.

The party has been plagued by the fallout from the tumultuous terms of Johnson and his successor as prime minister, Liz Truss, who quit within weeks after her plan for unfunded tax cuts alarmed financial markets, which accentuated a cost of living crisis and saw mortgage costs soar.

Johnson, who stood down as prime minister last September, quit Parliament last month after being accused of misleading the House of Commons over statements he made regarding the lockdown breaches.

The former lawmaker in Selby, an ally of Johnson’s, quit along with him while the member of parliament in Somerton and Frome resigned amid sex and drugs allegations.

In light of those defeats, there is speculation that Sunak, who has to call a general election by January 2025, could look to shake up his government with a cabinet shuffle soon.

While Sunak mulls his options, much of the spotlight will turn on Labour leader Starmer, who has been cautious in laying out his plans for government.

The party’s failure to secure victory in Johnson’s former seat will likely some concern over London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand an antipollution zone to all outer boroughs of the capital, a move that will see many older cars and diesel vehicles face a daily emissions charge.

Source: News Agencies