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British PM Rishi Sunak suffers 2 big defeats in U.K. special elections

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, center, and newly elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, center right, speak at the Rumbling Tum cafe in Uxbridge, after Tuckwell won the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, west London, Friday July 21, 2023.
Carl Court
/
AP
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, center, and newly elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, center right, speak at the Rumbling Tum cafe in Uxbridge, after Tuckwell won the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, west London, Friday July 21, 2023.

LONDON — Britain's governing Conservative Party suffered two thumping defeats Friday in a trio of special elections but avoided a drubbing after holding onto former premier Boris Johnson's seat in suburban London.

Though the main opposition Labour Party and the smaller centrist Liberal Democrats overturned massive Conservative majorities to win a seat apiece, the Conservatives found some crumbs of comfort in their narrow success in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London.

Still, the results of Thursday's elections, if replicated at a likely general election next year, would certainly see Labour emerge as the biggest single party, possibly with a sizable overall majority. Despite holding onto Johnson's former seat by just 495 votes, the three election results show the Conservatives losing ground across a broad range of voters: suburban Londoners, small-town-dwellers in the north of England and rural residents in the southwest.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak headed straight off to the scene of his party's sole electoral success and noted that governments often find midterm elections difficult.

"The message I take away is that we've got to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people," he said in a cafe in Ruislip.

Labour's leader Keir Starmer is also heading off to Selby and Ainsty in northern England, where 25-year-old candidate Keir Mather managed to secure the party's second largest swing at a special election since 1945.

"This is a historic result that shows that people are looking at Labour and seeing a changed party that is focused entirely on the priorities of working people with an ambitious, practical plan to deliver," Starmer said after the result was announced.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats took Somerton and Frome in southwest England on a similarly large swing away from the Conservatives.

"The people of Somerton and Frome have spoken for the rest of the country who are fed up with Rishi Sunak's out-of-touch Conservative government," Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.

What is clear about those two elections was that voters from both opposition parties clearly backed the party most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. Facing this level of tactical voting, the defeats will likely leave many Conservative lawmakers rattled ahead of the likely national vote next year.

The defeats don't mean a change of government, since the Conservatives still have a chunky majority in the House of Commons.

For months, opinion polls have been giving Labour a double-digit lead — sometimes up to 20% — nationwide over the Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010.

The party has been plagued by the fallout from the tumultuous terms of Johnson and his successor as prime minister, Liz Truss, who quit within weeks after her plan for unfunded tax cuts alarmed financial markets, which accentuated a a cost-of-living crisis and saw mortgage costs soar.

Johnson, who stood down as premier last September, quit Parliament last month after being accused of misleading the House of Commons over statements he made regarding the lockdown breaches. The former lawmaker in Selby, an ally of Johnson's, followed him out the door while the member of parliament in Somerton and Frome resigned amid sex and drugs allegations.

In light of those bruising defeats, there is speculation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has to call a general election by January 2025, could look to shake up his government with a Cabinet shuffle as early as Friday.

While Sunak mulls his options, much of the spotlight will turn on Labour leader Starmer, who has been cautious in laying out his plans for government.

The party's failure to secure victory in Johnson's former seat will likely some concern over London Mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to expand an anti-pollution zone to all outer boroughs of the capital, a move that will see many older cars and diesel vehicles face a daily emissions charge.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press