Britain’s Conservative Party, after fearing it would lose all three parliamentary by-elections held this week, managed to cling to victory in one of them. But the Conservatives lost the other two seats by wide margins, spelling trouble for the looming general election. Here are four takeaways from the vote.

Hampered by Britain’s faltering economy and the serial scandals in his party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was seen as the leader of a zombie government, destined for defeat by the opposition Labor Party. The election results do not change that negative forecast, but the unexpected Conservative victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, previously represented by Boris Johnson, strips Labor of its invincible poison.

Mr. Sunak also received help on the economic front this week, with the announcement that the inflation rate, while still high, fell more than expected in June. This opens the door for the prime minister to achieve one of the main goals of his government: to halve the inflation rate by the end of this year.

On Friday, in a surprisingly upbeat visit to a cafe in Uxbridge, Mr Sunak told Sky News, “The message I’m taking away is that we have to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people.” The results, he said, showed that “when confronted with the real reality of the Labor Party, when there is a real choice on an issue of substance at stake, people vote Conservative.”

That is likely to be Mr Sunak’s plan for the election, which he must call by January 2025. He is banking that the economy will recover enough that the Conservatives can take credit for leading Britain through a difficult stretch and persuade voters that switching to Labor is too big a risk.

In the UK political system, an MP is elected to represent one of 650 constituencies, and contests are fought on a winner-takes-all basis. The candidate with the most votes becomes a legislator, while the votes of those who preferred someone else count for nothing.

So, voters often face a dilemma: Should they vote for the person they really want, even if they have no real chance of winning, or should they choose someone better positioned to defeat the candidate they dislike the most? Tactical voters are making the second of those two choices and, as at other times in the past, this trend is now threatening damage to an unpopular Conservative Party.

In Somerton and Frome, in south-west England, the centrist Liberal Democrats swept to victory, but not only because traditional Conservative supporters switched to them. In the words of the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, Labor supporters also “lent us their support” by voting for Sarah Dyke to defeat the Conservative candidate. The same thing seems to have happened in reverse in Selby and Ainsty, in northern England, where Labor won.

Tactical voting only really works for the opposition parties when it is clear which of them is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. But the trend is ominous for Mr. Sunak because, after a period of sharp unpopularity, the Liberal Democrats are recovering, positioning themselves. as fierce opponents of the Tories, and they hope to win some of the Tory heartlands in southern England.

The signs from these by-elections are that, when the next general election comes around, Mr Sunak could face genuine electoral pressure.

By grinding out narrow victories in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Mr Sunak’s Conservatives proved their mettle as campaigners in one area of ​​outer London, despite their problems on the national stage.

Their winning candidate, Steve Tuckwell, is a former postal worker who stacked supermarket shelves when he was young. His campaign largely rejected Mr Johnson, the scandal-ridden former prime minister who held the seat until his resignation from parliament triggered the contest to replace him.

But as Mr Tuckwell acknowledged, it was the expansion into outer London, including Uxbridge, of an ultra-low emission zone, or ULEZ, that galvanized support for the Tories. Under the scheme, those driving older, more polluting, cars would be charged £12.50, or $16, a day to use them – a charge that is naturally unpopular with owners of aging vehicles.

The expansion of the zone, which already operates in central London, was the brainchild of the city’s Labor mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the Conservatives positioned themselves as its main opponents. Mr Khan argues that the zone is essential to improving poor air quality, which it is known to have contributed to at least one death in London. But at a time of economic stress, the vote in Uxbridge could sharpen a wider debate about who pays the cost of the transition to a greener economy.

Of the three races, the important result in Selby and Ainsty is the best bellwether for Britain’s long-term political direction. The Conservatives have held the district in North Yorkshire since it was created in 2010, a period that coincides with the party being in government. To win there, Labor had to overturn the largest Conservative majority in a by-election since World War II.

A rural area with a coal-mining heritage, Selby and Ainsty is not a classic “red wall” or Labor stronghold, a district of the kind that the party lost to the Conservatives in huge numbers in the 2019 general election. But Labour’s victory there suggests the party can compete to regain the seats it lost in other districts in the Midlands and the north of England, which are critical to winning a parliamentary majority.

The Labor victory also resonates for symbolic reasons: Selby and Ainsty are not far south of Mr Sunak’s North Yorkshire constituency. The new Labor MP, Keir Mather, 25, has the same first name as the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, who in turn is named after Labour’s first parliamentary leader, Keir Hardie.

In a triumphant visit to the district, Mr Starmer gestured to the young winner and joked, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to say, ‘Well done, Keir.'” The result, he said, was “a vote for change”, adding, “The priorities of working people are our priorities, and that’s why people are prepared to put their faith in the Labor Party.”

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