LONDON (Reuters): British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives lost two strategically important parliamentary seats on Friday but unexpectedly retained Boris Johnson’s old constituency in a setback for the main opposition Labour Party.
The votes were one of the last electoral tests before a general election expected next year and had been seen as an indicator of the two main parties’ prospects.
The problems facing the prime minister were highlighted by the opposition Labour party securing its biggest by-election victory since World War Two in a formerly safe Conservative parliamentary seat in Selby and Ainsty.
The Conservatives suffered another crushing loss in another vote but narrowly retained Johnson’s former seat by fewer than 500 votes in a huge relief for Sunak avoided becoming the first British leader to lose three by-elections on a single day in more than half a century ago.
Sunak, a former finance minister and investment banker, has tried to use his technocratic leadership to restore the Conservatives’ credibility after a series of scandals last year forced Boris Johnson to resign, and economic turmoil forced his successor, Liz Truss, who quit after just six weeks.
With stubbornly high inflation, economic stagnation, rising taxes and mortgages rates, industrial unrest, and long waiting times to use the state-run health service, the Conservatives had been braced for the possibility of losing all three contests in Thursday’s by-elections.
Sunak’s Conservatives are trailing the opposition Labour party by 20 points in national opinion polls, which suggests the ruling party will fail to win a fifth consecutive general election.
But Labour’s loss in Uxbridge shows its lead in the polls may not translate into to a clear parliamentary majority.
John Curtice, Britain’s best-known pollster, said based on Labour’s performance in Uxbridge the most likely outcome at the next general election, which must be held by January 2025, is a hung parliament.
“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,” he told the BBC.
In a surprise result, the Conservatives retained the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat after Johnson’s shock decision to quit parliament last month after he was found to have made misleading statements over parties held in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic.
In his victory speech, the new member of parliament Steve Tuckwell, said his party’s victory was because of local rather national factors, pointing to the issue of London’s Labour mayor extending the ultra-low emission zone to include suburban areas such as Uxbridge.
The other results on Friday exposed the Conservatives vulnerabilities on two fronts: the loss of a rural seat in the north of England, and one in the southwest, a traditional stronghold even though the party won large majorities in both at the last general election in 2019.
Labour won the constituency of Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire from the Conservatives by 4,000 votes after an ally of Johnson resigned in solidarity with the former prime minister.
In Somerton and Frome in southwest England, the centrist Liberal Democrats managed to overturn a Conservative majority of 19,213 after a third member of parliament quit over allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use.
Curtice said Labour’s loss in Uxbridge shows the “potential fragility” of the party’s lead in the polls while the Conservatives continue to lose voters in southern areas.
The two main “political party leaders have been left with something to think about in the wake of these results,” he said.
Sunak is expected to reshuffle his senior ministers soon as he picks his team to fight the next general election.
The outgoing defense minister, Ben Wallace, said on Tuesday the changes could come in the next few days or the first week of September.