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Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party experienced a big political upset when it lost a critical parliamentary election in northern England to Labour, which overturned a huge majority, giving Keir Starmer’s party strong momentum as it prepares for a nationwide poll due next year.
Sunak was spared a whitewash when his party unexpectedly held ex-leader Boris Johnson’s old seat in a close finish on the outskirts of London, a double punch that will worry the prime minister.
The Conservatives had downplayed their chances in the three special elections held on Thursday in very different parts of England, reasoning that even winning one fight would be a victory given that governments are generally beaten in mid-term elections.
However, the magnitude of the defeats will raise more doubts about his ability to reverse his party’s poll collapse, which began under Johnson and has only recently rebounded from Liz Truss’ dismal seven-week premiership last autumn.
“The tide is still a long way out for the Conservatives, and they still have an awful long way to go before they look as though they might have a chance of being able to retain power after the next general election,” Strathclyde University professor of politics John Curtice told the BBC.
Keir Mather received 46% of the vote in Selby and Ainsty, a rural North Yorkshire seat held by the Conservatives since its creation in 2010, compared to Labour’s 25% when the seat was last contested in 2019. Conservative Claire Holmes finished second with 34% of the vote, down from 60% the previous time.
The outcome is seismic for Starmer, who can demonstrate that his party is leveraging its double-digit lead in national polls to defeat massive Tory majorities as he attempts to lead Labour back to power for the first time since 2010.
According to the Conservatives, they were defending a majority of 20,137 votes, the largest margin Labour has overturned in a by-election.
“It is apparent how strong the yearning for change is. “Voters trusted us for the first time, many for the first time,” Starmer remarked after the Selby result was announced. “After 13 years of Tory chaos, only Labour can restore the country’s hope, optimism, and future.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Dyke was elected Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, securing a spectacular 29-point swing from the Conservatives, which Ed Davey’s party will herald as proof that the Conservatives are vulnerable in their traditional heartland across southern England.
Rishi Sunak’s Party Under Pressure
This puts Rishi Sunak’s Party under strain since it supports the perception that his Conservatives are being pressed on numerous fronts. Dyke remarked in her winning speech that the result demonstrated that progressive parties can employ tactical voting to defeat the Conservatives in elections.
Davey wrote in an email that the residents of Somerton and Frome had “spoken for the rest of the country who are fed up with Rishi Sunak’s out-of-touch Conservative government.”
Rishi Sunak’s awful night may have been considerably worse. After a recount, the Conservatives narrowly defeated Labour in Johnson’s old Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency in northwest London by 495 votes.
Tory Steve Tuckwell received 45 percent of the vote. The Conservatives were defeated by a 6.7-point swing to Labour, falling just short of the 7.6-point swing required by the opposing party to win the seat.
Starmer’s party cited local conditions in the constituency as impeding its candidate’s progress. Faced with a crushing defeat, the Conservatives sought to convert the vote into an unofficial referendum on controversial proposals to charge automobiles in the district to decrease pollution, known as the Ultra Low Emission Zone. Sadiq Khan, Labour’s mayor of London, is pushing for this program.
“We know that the Conservatives’ crashing of the economy has hit working people hard, so it’s unsurprising that the ULEZ expansion was a concern for voters here in a by-election,” a Labour spokesman said in an emailed statement.
Johnson was initially elected in Uxbridge in 2015, and he retained the seat in 2019 with 53% of the vote, while also leading the Conservatives to a resounding national win. However, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister last year and as a Member of Parliament in June when a commission ruled that he lied to Parliament about rule-breaking parties at Downing Street during the pandemic.
However, additional elections are planned in two more Tory-held regions — Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth — raising the prospect of an unwelcome storyline following Sunak into the autumn.