UK Tories routed in double by-election defeat

LONDON — The Conservative Party lost two previously safe seats to the opposition Labour in a double by-election blow to embattled Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Labour comfortably snatched the safe seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood from the governing Tories in Thursday night’s contests — marking the Conservatives’ 9th and 10th by-election losses since 2019, the highest number of Tory losses in one parliamentary term this side of the Second World War.

The results heap fresh pressure on Sunak, whose party — in government for 14 years — is trailing in the national polls ahead of a general election this year.

In Wellingborough, which went to the polls after Conservative MP Peter Bone was recalled over allegations of misconduct, Labour achieved a large 28.5 percent swing. Newly elected Labour MP Gen Kitchen scooped up 45.8 percent of the votes in a seat that has been Tory since 2005.

The Wellingborough result marks the worst-ever by-election collapse in Tory vote share, down 38 points. In both seats, the Conservative drop (in percentage points) was almost twice as big as the gain in Labour vote share.

The Kingswood by-election saw a 16.4 percent swing to Labour, with candidate Damian Egan getting 44.9 percent of the vote share. The Tories have held Kingswood since 2010, but a by-election was called after a former energy minister quit the Conservative party in protest at Sunak’s fossil fuel plans.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the “fantastic results” overnight “show people want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party to deliver it.”

But Conservative former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg put a brave face on, saying the results were  “not as bad” as expected. Conservative aides told POLITICO London Playbook these are “obviously not good results” but that by-elections “were always going to be hard.”

Despite the big swings, pollster John Curtice pointed out Labour’s new 10-point majority in Kingswood wasn’t as big as under Tony Blair’s New Labour, and suggested distaste for the Tories is the biggest driving factor. There may be trouble ahead for Labour too, with the upcoming Rochdale by-election overshadowed by a bitter row over its choice of candidate.

It was also a night of progress for right-wing challenger party Reform UK, which broke its own polling records overnight — winning 13 percent in Wellingborough and 10.4 percent in Kingswood. Wellingborough Reform candidate Ben Habib told Sunak to “wake up and smell the coffee.”

Dan Bloom reported from Wellingborough.