Sunak's ruling Conservatives brace for defeat in UK by-elections

Sunak's ruling Conservatives brace for defeat in UK by-elections
After the votes were cast, the Conservative Party in the UK is expected to see significant losses in the by-elections happening this week.
4 min read
Observers look on as ballots are counted in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservatives braced for defeat in three by-elections across England on Thursday, as the ruling party looked set to suffer an electoral backlash over the UK's ailing economy.

The Tories are defending hefty majorities in the seats in London, Yorkshire in northern England and Somerset in the southwest, but appear to be haemorrhaging support as the scandals of recent years and decades-high inflation take their toll.

Polls opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and closed at 10:00 pm, with results not expected until early Friday -- just as MPs start a six-week recess.

That could ease the fallout from a rare triple loss within his often-fractious parliamentary party, but nonetheless leave Sunak increasingly vulnerable politically.

The contests come ahead of a general election due next year, with the main opposition Labour party enjoying double-digit poll leads and poised to retake power for the first time in over a decade.

Labour, under its leader Keir Starmer, won local council elections in early May across swathes of England, as Sunak's Conservatives suffered steep losses in his first major electoral test since taking power last October.

The opposition has won five by-elections since March last year, but only one of those seats -- Wakefield, in Yorkshire -- was captured from the Tories.

Labour is now aiming to emulate that June 2022 feat in nearby Selby and Ainsty, where Nigel Adams quit as Conservative MP last month after failing to be nominated for a peerage by ex-prime minister Boris Johnson.

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Labour is also eyeing victory in Johnson's northwest London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, after the scandal-tarred former leader himself resigned as an MP last month.

He quit after learning that a cross-party parliamentary committee had concluded he deliberately lied to lawmakers about lockdown-breaking parties during the Covid pandemic, and recommended a 90-day suspension.

Another opposition party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, are intent on overturning a 20,000-strong Tory majority in Somerton and Frome, after its Tory MP David Warburton stood down following an admission of cocaine use.

Sunak, who has not been visible on the campaign trail, sought to project a business-as-usual image Thursday.

"When it comes to making people's lives better, I am focused on action, not words," he said in a statement heralding his contentious illegal migration bill formally becoming law.

Turnout in by-elections is typically low, while his Conservatives are also hoping local issues could help hold up their vote, particularly in Uxbridge.

Opposition there to Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan's planned expansion of a tax on the most polluting vehicles could prove pivotal.

"It's a by-election so it's really focused on the local issues much more than if it was a general election," voter Deborah Willott, 65, told AFP as she cast her ballot in a church polling site.

"I think it's just time for change," Willott added.

Sunak struggles 

Sunak, who became prime minister following the disastrous 44-day tenure of predecessor Liz Truss, initially succeeded in stabilising financial markets panicked by her radical tax-slashing agenda.

But the 43-year-old former finance minister has struggled to reverse his party's declining fortunes, which first set in during the so-called "Partygate" scandal under Johnson.

Sunak's turnaround efforts have in part been hobbled by persistently high inflation, which in recent months has spooked the markets once again.

With interest rates at their highest in 15 years, pushing mortgage and other borrowing costs ever higher, the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation is showing few signs of abating.

Sunak kicked off the year by making five key vows to voters, including halving inflation, growing the economy and cutting waiting times within the overstretched National Health Service (NHS).

He has made little headway on most of the pledges, and there are persistent fears the UK will tip into recession this year as the high interest rates constrain spending.

Sunak's net favourability has fallen to its lowest level (-40) since he entered Downing Street, with two-thirds of Britons saying they have an unfavourable view of him, according to YouGov.