Britain’s ruling Conservative Party suffered a crushing defeat in one constituency but avoided losing another as results came in early Friday in three by-elections, a critical test of popularity for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The small, centrist Liberal Democrats party won one of the Conservatives’ safest seats in Somerton and Frome, in the south-west of England, overturning a large majority for the Conservatives, in a significant victory, with the Liberal Democrats receiving 21,187 votes to 10,790 for the Conservatives.
But there was better news for Mr Sunak in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on the north-west fringes of London, where his party narrowly held out against the main opposition Labor Party in the constituency, which was represented by former prime minister Boris Johnson.
A third competition, in Selby and Ainsty, in Yorkshire in the north of England, was still to be decided.
For Mr Sunak, the by-elections were an anxious foretaste of the general election he must call by January 2025. With Britain besieged by high inflation, a stagnant economy and widespread labor unrest, his Conservatives face a real threat of being thrown out of power for the first time in 14 years.
While Britain shares some of these economic problems with other countries following the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives have compounded the problems with policy missteps and political turmoil that culminated in the short, stormy tenure of Mr Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss.
She proposed sweeping but unfunded tax cuts that alarmed the financial markets and triggered her own downfall after 44 days in office. Mr Sunak shelved Ms Truss’s agenda and restored Britain’s fiscal stability. But her legacy was a poisoned chalice for Mr Sunak and his Tory compatriots with much of the British electorate.
“The Liz Truss episode really damaged their reputation for economic expertise, and that will be very difficult to get back,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It will be very difficult.”
So convincing is the Labor Party’s lead in opinion polls that some analysts have predicted Mr Sunak will become the first prime minister to lose three so-called by-elections in one day since 1968.
But the narrow victory for the Conservatives in Uxbridge and South Ruislip deflected that prospect. There, when all the votes were counted, the final tally was 13,965 for Steve Tuckwell, of the Conservative Party, and 13,470 for Danny Beales of Labour.
By-elections occur when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections. This time, the contests were also a reminder of the toxic legacy of another of Mr. Sunak’s predecessors, Mr. Johnson.
Mr Johnson resigned his seat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, on the western edge of London, after lawmakers ruled he had lied to parliament about closed parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Voters in Selby and Ainsty in northern England have chosen a replacement for one of Mr Johnson’s closest allies, Nigel Adams, who is stepping down after not being given a seat in the House of Lords as he had hoped.
A third contest took place in Somerton and Frome, a rural county in southwest England, where another Tory lawmaker, David Warburton, resigned his seat after admitting he had taken cocaine.
“This is probably the closing of a chapter in the story of Boris Johnson’s impact on British politics,” said Robert Hayward, an electoral expert who also serves as a Conservative member of the House of Lords. But he added, “Whether it’s about closing the whole book is another matter.”
As the voting took place in very different parts of England, it provided an unusual snapshot of public opinion ahead of the general election. It also captured several trends that have swept through British politics since the last general election in 2019, when Mr Johnson’s Conservatives won a landslide victory.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip are the kind of seats Labor needed to win to prove it was credibly closing in on power. Mr Johnson’s political problems have weakened the Conservatives, but their fortunes have been kept alive by public anger at London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labor member, for his plans to extend an expensive ultra-low emission zone across all of London’s boroughs, including Uxbridge.
In Selby and Ainsty, a Tory stronghold, Labor hoped to show it had regained the trust of voters in the north and middle of England – regions it once dominated but where it lost to the Tories in the 2019 election.
The vote in Somerton and Frome was a test of the Conservative Party’s fortunes in its heartlands of southern England, known as the “blue wall” – after the party’s campaign colours. It was under pressure in the region of revival of the smaller, centrist, Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats have taken advantage of some voters who are adverse to the Conservatives, voting strategically for whoever seems best to defeat the Conservative candidate.
Recent British elections have had talk of a grand political realignment, with candidates emphasizing values and cultural issues. But analysts said these by-elections were dominated by the cost-of-living crisis – cooking concerns that are hurting the Conservatives after more than a decade in power.