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Double By-Election Loss Could Spell "Deep Deep Electoral Trouble" For Conservatives

Damien Egan after his by-election win in Kingswood (Alamy)

6 min read

The Conservatives' loss of two more seats in by-elections after Labour overturned sizeable Tory majorities in Wellingborough in the east midlands and Kingswood in Gloucestershire last night, will prove difficult to swallow for the governing party, which still harbours hopes it can cling on to power at the next general election.

Labour overturned a Tory majority of more than 18,000 to take disgraced former MP Peter Bone’s old seat in the East Midlands, and another of more than 11,000 in Kingswood which was vacated by former Tory MP Chris Skidmore in protest at Rishi Sunak's record on climate policy. 

The results are the latest in a series of by-election gains for Labour, which the party's leader Keir Starmer said on Friday morning demonstrates that “people want change”. 

The East Midlands of Wellingborough seat will be represented by Gen Kitchen after she secured 13,844 with a majority of 6,436. She beat Conservative candidate Helen Harrison, Bone's partner, who received 7,408 votes. Bone was removed as Wellingborough's MP by recall petition, after an independent watchdog found that he carried out acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct, which he denies. The South Gloucestershire seat of Kingswood will be represented by Damien Egan, the former mayor of Lewisham in London, who secured 11,176 votes with a majority of 2,501. He beat Conservative candidate Sam Bromiley with 8,675 votes.

Veteran elections expert Sir John Curtice said that these by-election results underline that the Conservative party, which has trailed Labour in the polls for well over a year, was in “deep deep electoral trouble”. 

He told BBC Breakfast that “it may well be that the circumstances surrounding Peter Bone’s downfall and his replacement by his partner perhaps added to the party’s woes in Wellingborough”. 

“This morning we are still looking at a government that at the moment is staring defeat in the face at the next general election,” Curtice added.  

Rishi Sunak insisted that "by-elections are always difficult for incumbent governments" and suggested the results show there is not "enthusiasm" for Labour. 

"The circumstances of these by-elections were of course particularly challenging," he told broadcasters on Friday morning, pointing to low turnout. 

"It shows that we’ve got work to do to show people that we are delivering on their priorities and that is what I’m absolutely determined to do," he continued. 

"But it also shows that there isn’t a huge amount of enthusiasm for the alternative in Keir Starmer and the Labour Party."

Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff described the Wellingborough result as “catastrophically bad”, while both elections show that Tories are “losing voters to both Labour and Reform”. 

Chris Hopkins, the political research director at Savanta, said the results were a "shambles" for the Tory party. "In American sports parlance (thanks, Taylor Swift), Rishi Sunak is now 1/6 in Conservative by-election defences, his sole victory coming in Boris Johnson’s symbolic former seat," he said. 

Hopkins believed the poor results for the Conservatives in this week's by-election “all but rule out” a May general election. The Prime Minister must call a general election before the end of this year, and has indicated that it is likely to be held in the autumn. But there is some pressure from within the party to align it with a series of local and mayoral elections that will be held across the country on 2 May.

“If everything goes right for Sunak, he’d be wise to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.  But a recession and these by-election defeats count as ‘things going wrong'," he added. 

Starmer said this morning that the government has “failed”, something further proven by the confirmation this week that the economy has fallen into recession. 

“The Kingswood and Wellingborough results show that people want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party to deliver it," he said in a statement following the results. 

“The Tories have failed, Rishi's recession proves that. “Labour is back in the service of working people.”

The right wing Reform party came third in both seats, securing 13 per cent of the vote in Wellingborough, and 10.4 per cent in Kingswood. Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden told the BBC this morning that votes for Reform would “help put Keir Starmer in Downing Street".

“It’s quite clear from the results today Reform aren’t challenging realistically for seats and this next general election is going to be a battle between Conservatives and the Labour Party."

Hopkins said that while pollsters have long harboured "suspicion" that Reform's influence was being overstated, he did feel that today's results suggested their appeal could be broad.

"Savanta’s figures have had them at 9 per cent nationally, while others have had them even higher, but this has never been backed up at actual elections, until now," he said.  

"Designs on a second-place finish in Wellingborough fell someway short, but 10% as a baseline in Kingswood is impressive, and possibly points to their appeal not necessarily being highly concentrated in a handful of seats."

Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield in the East Midlands, told PoliticsHome that it's "inevitable" that the governing party loses seats in by-elections, and the results show a swing towards "disinterest and people staying at home". 

"What it shows is that people are probably fed up with all of us, to be honest. A huge number of people don't know who to vote for."

He said he did not think the Wellingborough result had implications for the wider East Midlands region, as it "showed what we already knew". Bradley holds a majority of 16,306 – less than the Tory majority previously held in Wellingborough.

"We've all got a lot of work to do over the course of this year to prove we are worth voting for."

Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther

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