• Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Pressure on Sunak as Tories suffer defeat in by-elections

Double defeat piles pressure on Sunak

Rishi Sunak waits for the arrival of Jordan’s King Abdullah II at 10 Downing Street, central London, on February 15, 2024 prior to a meeting. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

LABOUR dealt a crushing blow to prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories on Friday (16), winning contests for two new lawmakers in votes that suggested the opposition party was on track to win a national election later this year.

The double defeat underlined the flagging fortunes of the governing party and will do little to silence Sunak’s critics, who fear the Tories could face an all-but wipe-out at the national election and want him to change course.

The 43-year-old former investment banker has struggled to restore his party’s fortunes despite recasting himself at various points over the past year as a bold reformer, a stable technocrat and now as someone who needs more time “to stick to the plan” because, he says, that plan is working.

But with the Labour ahead in the polls, Sunak might well need to bend to the demands of some in his party to offer an increasingly disaffected electorate a more right-wing Tory agenda before the election.

“By winning in these Tory strongholds, we can confidently say that Labour is back in the service of working people and we will work tirelessly to deliver for them,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.

“The Tories have failed. Rishi’s recession proves that. That’s why we’ve seen so many former Tory voters switching directly to this changed Labour party.”

Labour candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates after winning the Wellingborough Parliamentary by-election at the count centre in Kettering, central England, on February 16, 2024. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Labour overturned a hefty Tory majority in the central English town of Wellingborough to win the parliamentary seat with 13,844 votes against 7,408 in what polling expert John Curtice described as the governing party’s “worst ever by-election reverse.”

In another threat to Sunak’s party, the candidate for the right-wing Reform Party won 3,919 votes, a sign, Curtice said, it had “now entered the electoral battle in a serious way … that potentially adds to the Conservatives’ difficulties”.

In Kingswood, southwestern England, Labour won with 11,176 votes against 8,675 for the Tory candidate.

Tories have only won four out of 21 by-elections since the last national election in 2019.

Labour candidate, Damien Egan, makes a speech after being declared the winner in the Kingswood by-election on February 16, 2024 in Thornbury, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

While so-called by-elections are often lost by the governing party, the scale of the defeat in two parliamentary seats the Tories have held for years piles pressure on Sunak, who became prime minister just over a year ago.

The challenge from the Reform Party could also worry some in the governing party. Senior Tory lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said at least in Kingswood, if Reform supporters had voted for the governing party as part of the “Tory family”, the Tories would have held the parliamentary seat.

It appeared that the Tories had all but written off the two by-elections.

While Labour sent many of its lawmakers and activists to campaign in both places, Tories had a muted presence.

Few believed they had any chance of winning in either place – the contest in Wellingborough was triggered after the former member of parliament was forced out over a bullying and harassment scandal, while in Kingswood, former minister Chris Skidmore resigned over Sunak’s climate change policies.

But some had hoped Labour might have been damaged this week when Starmer did not move immediately to censure a Labour candidate who was recorded espousing conspiracy theories about Israel and for scrapping a green investment target.

But with turnout low, voters punished the governing party and Sunak, who is struggling to meet his election promises. Data on Thursday (15) showed the economy had slipped into recession in the second half of 2023, a challenge for Sunak who has made boosting economic growth a main pledge.

With many voters angry over a punishing cost-of-living crisis, long waiting times to use the state-run health service and strikes on public transport, Sunak is running out of time to close the gap with Labour.

Rees-Mogg said to turn things around, the main thing was “about energising the party and having the new ideas” to win back traditional Conservative voters.

“It’s still all to play for,” he said.


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