February 23, 2024

British by-elections: So far, Win and Win for the Tories

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party suffered a landslide defeat in the contest for what was seen as one of its safer seats in Parliament, but avoided losing another district as results came in early Friday in three by-elections, a critical test of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s claim.

The small center party of the Liberal Democrats won in Somerton and Frome, in south-west England, returning a large majority. In a landslide victory, the Liberal Democrats received 21,187 votes to the Conservatives’ 10,790.

But there was better news for Mr Sunak in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on the fringes of north-west London, where his Conservatives narrowly held on against the Labor Party in the area represented by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The crucial 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 anticipation of the general election he must call by January 2025.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip are the sort of seats Labor needs to win to prove it is credible on its way to power. The winning Conservative candidate blamed his failure on public anger towards London mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labor member, over his plans to extend an expensive ultralow emissions zone across all London boroughs, including Uxbridge.

While the result could raise questions about Labour’s ability to win the next general election, the scale of the victory in Somerton and Frome is likely to alarm hard-pressed Conservative lawmakers in some of the party’s heartland areas in southern England.

With Britain beset by high inflation, a stagnant economy and widespread labor unrest, the Conservatives are in real danger of being thrown out of power for the first time in 14 years.

Although Britain shares some of these economic woes with other countries following the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives have compounded the problems through policy failures and political turmoil that culminated in the short and stormy tenure of Mr Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss.

She proposed sweeping but unfunded tax cuts that spooked the financial markets and prompted her own downfall after 44 days in office. Mr Sunak overturned Mr Truss’s agenda and restored Britain’s fiscal stability. But his legacy was a poisoned chalice for Mr Sunak and his Tory colleagues and much of the British electorate.

“The Liz Truss incident has seriously damaged their reputation for economic competence, and it will be very difficult to get that back,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It will be very difficult.”

So decisive is the Labor Party’s lead in the polls that some analysts predicted in advance that Mr Sunak would become the first prime minister to lose three so-called by-elections in one day since 1968.

But the Conservatives’ narrow victories in Uxbridge and South Ruislip overturned that prospect. Then, when all the votes were counted, the final score 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 around, the contests were also a reminder of the toxic legacy of another of Mr. Sunak’s predecessors, Mr. Johnson.

Mr Johnson resigned from his seat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip area, on the west edge of London, after lawmakers ruled he had lied to Parliament about lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic.

Voters in Selby and Ainsty in the north of England were choosing a representative for one of Mr Johnson’s closest allies, Nigel Adams, who resigned when he did not get a seat in the House of Lords, as he had hoped.

The contest in Somerton and Frome, a rural area in south-west England, was held because another Conservative 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 influence on British politics,” said Robert Hayward, a polling expert who also serves as a Conservative member of the House of Lords. But he added, “Whether it’s the end of the whole book is another matter.”

As the voting took place in very different parts of England, it provided an unusual insight into public opinion ahead of the general election. He also picked up on some trends running through British politics since the last general election in 2019, when Mr Johnson’s Conservatives won a landslide victory.

In Selby and Ainsty, a Tory stronghold, Labor was hoping to show it has regained the confidence of voters in the north and center of England — regions it once dominated but lost to the Tories in the 2019 election.

The vote in Somerton and Frome was a test of the success of the Conservative Party in its heartland in the south of England, known as the “blue wall” – after the party’s campaign colours. He is under pressure in the region due to the resurgence of the smaller, centrist Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats took advantage of some voters, who are opposed to the Conservatives, strategically casting their ballots for whoever is thought to be in the best position to defeat the Tory candidate.

There has been talk of a major political realignment in recent British elections, with candidates emphasizing values ​​and cultural issues. But analysts said these by-elections are dominated by the cost of living crisis – a kitchen table concern that has hurt the Conservatives after more than a decade in power.

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