Another setback to Rishi Sunak as UK's ruling Conservatives suffer two big by-election losses

Britain's ailing economy, the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades and several years of scandal and tumult within the Tories helped trigger the historic outcome.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (File | AP)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (File | AP)

LONDON: Britain's ruling Conservative Party lost two parliament seats to Labour on Friday, another ominous setback for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his party ahead of a general election expected next year.

The by-election results -- the latest in a string of traditionally safe Tory seats lost to rival parties in recent years -- saw Labour overturn huge majorities to further fuel hopes of a return to power after nearly 14 years in opposition.

Labour had played down its prospects in the Conservatives' previously "super safe" seats of Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, both in central England, which became vacant after their MPs quit, including one following sexual misconduct allegations.

But Britain's ailing economy, the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades and several years of scandal and tumult within the Tories helped trigger the historic outcome.

In Mid Bedfordshire, a Conservative-held seat for almost a century, Labour overturned a majority of nearly 25,000 -- the biggest swing at a by-election since 1945.

Jubilant Labour leader Keir Starmer hailed the "phenomenal results" as showing his party "is back in the service of working people and redrawing the political map".

"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," he added, ahead of a visit to Tamworth.

Polling expert John Curtice said the results were "extremely bad news" for the Conservatives and suggested they will lose the next general election.

"It is a pointer that, unless the Conservatives can fairly dramatically and fairly radically turn things around, then they are in truth staring defeat in the face," he added.

Sunak, who is visiting the Middle East following the latest outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, was yet to comment on the losses.

Ahead of the contests, his press secretary had sought to downplay the Tories' prospects, labelling by-elections typically "tough for incumbent governments".

Sunak has recently made several policy shifts, including cancelling part of a costly high-speed rail link and delaying measures aimed at helping the UK achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

He pitched the moves as showing he is a leader willing to take tough decisions in the long-term, despite criticism they were aimed more at drawing dividing lines with Labour.

Former Conservative cabinet member Robert Buckland said the by-elections showed he needed to focus on core issues that matter to voters.

"I'm looking for serious, grown-up approaches to the issues that really matter -- on the economy, on housing, on the future for our young people," he told the BBC.

As well as the two safe seats lost Friday, the Tories saw a 20,000 majority overturned by Labour in a July by-election, while the Liberal Democrats have snatched several Conservative seats since 2019.

Labour have also been leading national polls by double-digit margins for over a year.

'Had enough'
The winning candidates in this week's contests will now take their places on Labour's benches in the House of Commons, where the Tories still hold a large overall majority.

The Tamworth poll was triggered when Chris Pincher, who had the seat since 2010, quit after being found to have groped two men in an "egregious case of sexual misconduct".

Then-prime minister Boris Johnson's handling of the case led to a raft of ministerial resignations that spelt the beginning of the end of his premiership.

The Mid Bedfordshire poll was called when former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist who blames Sunak for his political downfall, quit her seat. She accused the new prime minister of having abandoned "the fundamental principles of conservatism".

Sunak succeeded Liz Truss as prime minister a year ago despite having lost a Tory leadership contest to her months earlier, after Truss' short-lived tenure rocked financial markets.

He has struggled to win the support of former Johnson allies and others within his party, as well as the wider electorate.

Labour candidate Alistair Strathern won in Mid Bedfordshire by 1,192 votes. He said the result proved that "nowhere is off limits for this Labour Party".

Sarah Edwards, who won in Tamworth by a majority of 1,316, said voters had sent a message that "they have had enough of this failed government that has crashed the economy and destroyed public services".

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