Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party suffered two thumping electoral defeats in different corners of England, underlining the struggle he faces to win over voters ahead of a national poll expected next year.
The opposition Labour Party took Selby and Ainsty, which is close to Sunak’s own seat in North Yorkshire, with a historic 24 percentage point swing, while the Liberal Democrats grabbed Somerton and Frome in the southwest with an even larger swing of 29 points.
A whitewash was narrowly averted when the Conservatives unexpectedly held off Labour in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson’s former seat on the outskirts of London, by 495 votes after a recount.
Sunak and his team had downplayed their chances in the three special elections in very different districts, arguing that even winning one would represent a victory given governments are often given a kicking in mid-term votes. The prime minister is eyeing holding the next national vote in November 2024 to allow Britain’s ailing economy as much time as possible to recover, a person familiar with his thinking told Bloomberg.
Economic data has begun to turn this week with a bigger-than-expected inflation drop, while figures published Friday show government borrowing undershot official forecasts – potentially giving Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt room for tax cuts.
The prime minister told reporters in Uxbridge the Conservatives will take encouragement from the result there, arguing it shows the outcome of the general election “is not a done deal.”
But the scale of the two defeats demonstrates the task ahead for Sunak as he attempts to turn around his party’s slump in the polls, which began under Johnson and has barely recovered from Liz Truss’s disastrous seven-week premiership last fall. Surveys show voters blame the decline in public services and an inflation-fueled cost-of-living crisis on the Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010. Labour’s lead is about 20 points in recent surveys.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and an expert on UK elections, said the average drop in support for the Conservatives was about 21 points across the three contests, meaning they performed “at least as badly” as national surveys showing Labour far ahead of the governing party.
“These results confirm the evidence of the opinion polls that the Conservatives are still in considerable electoral trouble,” he said in an interview on Friday. “So far the replacement of Liz Truss by Rishi Sunak has not delivered electorally what the Conservatives were hoping it would do.”
The Tories are being squeezed on two fronts. In its “Blue Wall” stronghold in southern England, the party is battling to stop disillusioned voters turning to the Liberal Democrats. In northern England, they will be seeking to retain the seats they won from Labour in 2019, known as the “Red Wall.”
“We have rewritten the rules on where Labour can win,” said Keir Mather, Labour’s 25-year-old new MP in Selby. “For too long, Conservatives up here and in Westminster have failed us, and today that changes.”
Mather won 46% of the vote in Selby and Ainsty, a rural seat that has been in Tory hands since it was created in 2010, compared with Labour’s 25% when the seat was last contested in 2019. Conservative Claire Holmes came second with 34% of the vote – down from 60% last time.
The Conservatives were defending a majority of 20,137 votes – the biggest margin Labour has overturned in a by-election in the postwar period. In terms of percentage swing from the Conservatives to Labour, it is the second-biggest swing ever in a by-election, according to Curtice, and the first time there’s been a result on that scale since the 1992-1997 Parliament – the years that preceded Tony Blair’s historic Labour victory.
“It is clear just how powerful the demand for change is. Voters put their trust in us – many for the first time,” Starmer said. “After 13 years of Tory chaos, only Labour can give the country its hope, its optimism and its future back.”
Conservative Party Chairman Greg Hands said he’s “disappointed” at the two losses but said they were driven by Conservative voters staying home. “That’s something which obviously, we need to work on,” he said told Bloomberg Radio’s Caroline Hepker.
Sarah Dyke became Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome with 55% of the vote, compared to 26% for the Tories. The seat has long passed between the the two parties, but had been in Conservative hands since 2015.
The result proved tactical voting can be used by progressive parties at elections to beat the Conservatives, Dyke said in her victory speech. That was a reference to Labour’s support dropping about 10 percentage points. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said voters had “spoken for the rest of the country who are fed up with Rishi Sunak’s out-of-touch Conservative government.”
The result in Uxbridge provided Sunak with some relief, with Tory Steve Tuckwell winning 45% of the vote compared to Labour’s 44%. There was a 6.7-percentage point swing from the Conservatives to Labour, just short of the 7.6-point swing the opposition party needed to take the seat.
Yet even the Conservatives conceded it was local factors that allowed them to scrape through. The Tories effectively turned the vote into an unofficial referendum on a controversial plan to expand London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which would see drivers of older vehicles in the district having to pay new charges in a bid to reduce pollution. That program is being pushed by Labour’s mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
“It was his damaging and costly ULEZ policy that lost them this election,” Tuckwell said in his victory speech.“This wasn’t the campaign Labour expected and Keir Starmer and his mayor Sadiq Khan need to sit up and listen to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip residents.”
The close result presents a headache for both parties, given Tuckwell’s line does not offer much of a boost to Sunak. According to Curtice, if the swing to Labour in Uxbridge was replicated in a national vote, Sunak’s party’s would lose its majority in Parliament.
Labour pointed to the ULEZ link as proof the Uxbridge result did not reflect national opinion, yet the result has already prompted calls within the party for a rethink on environmental policy. “When you don’t listen to voters you don’t win elections,” Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner told the BBC.
The risk for Starmer is that the same dynamic drives results in other outer suburbs, with the next mayoral election looming next year.
Johnson – who actually started the ULEZ program as London mayor – first won Uxbridge in 2015 and held the seat in 2019 with 53% of the vote, when he also led the Tories to a national victory.
But he was forced out as prime minister last year and quit as an MP in June, after a panel found he lied to Parliament about rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.
The Tory poll slump began under him but is continuing under Sunak. Further elections are expected in two more Tory-held areas – Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth – creating the potential for an unwelcome narrative for the Tories to persist into the fall.