- Opposition Labour Party overturns two large majorities
- Defeats exposes Conservatives’ vulnerabilities
- Polls seen as test of public support before national election
By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON, Oct 20 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives suffered two crushing defeats in previously safe parliamentary seats on Friday, raising doubts about his party’s ability to win the general election expected next year.
The double defeat showed a dramatic slump in support for the Conservatives, who have won the last four national elections, and is only the third time that a British prime minister has lost two by-elections on the same day since 1991.
The main opposition Labour Party won the seat of Mid-Bedfordshire, an area about 50 miles (80 km) north of London, overturning a majority of almost 25,000, making it the biggest deficit the party has overcome in a by-election since 1945.
Labour also overturned a huge majority in another former Conservative stronghold, Tamworth, a largely rural constituency in central England, with the second largest swing between the two parties since World War Two.
“These are phenomenal results,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement. “Winning in these Tory strongholds shows that people overwhelmingly want change and they’re ready to put their faith in our changed Labour Party to deliver it.”
Sunak, a 43-year-old former investment banker, has recently tried to cast himself as a bold reformer and no longer the cautious technocrat who restored some of Britain’s credibility after scandals and economic turmoil forced his two predecessors from office.
With voters angry over high inflation, economic stagnation, and long waiting times to use the state-run health service, Sunak is running out of time and opportunities to close the gap on Labour, who have enjoyed a double-digit polling lead over the Conservative for over a year.
A spokesman the Conservatives said the results had been difficult but governments usually struggle to win elections mid-term.
In a speech at his party’s conference this month, Sunak sought to cast himself as a bold reformer who was willing to take tough decisions to revive the economy.
Sunak announced plans to scrap a high-speed railway line that his predecessors had championed and had previously announced plans to water down the country’s net-zero commitments.
After the conference, polls showed Sunak had failed to significantly narrow the deficit with Labour, although his personal ratings improved marginally.
OVERTURNING LARGE MAJORITIES
Labour had played down its chances of winning either seat with Starmer’s spokesman saying this week his party had the same likelihood of a “moonshot”.
The contests in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth were caused by the high-profile resignations of politicians close to former prime minister Boris Johnson.
The former minister Nadine Dorries quit her Mid-Bedfordshire seat after she failed to secure support for being appointed to the upper chamber of parliament.
The contest in Tamworth was triggered when another politician, Chris Pincher, resigned after he was suspended from parliament for groping men at a London club. The accusations against him contributed to the collapse of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s government.
Labour won the Mid-Bedfordshire seat with a majority of over 1,100 overturning a Conservative majority of 24,664 at the last general election in 2019.
The area had previously elected a Conservative member of parliament in every election since 1931.
In Tamworth, the Labour candidate Sarah Edwards won the seat with a majority of over 1,300, overturning the Conservative majority of 19,634 at the 2019 general election.