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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tough Night For Tories With Historic Labour And Lib Dem By-Election Wins

Keir Mather secures a historic Labour by-election win in Selby (Alamy)

9 min read

Rishi Sunak has avoided a triple by-election defeat, but there will be nervousness in Number 10 following huge swings to the Liberal Democrats in Somerset and Labour in North Yorkshire.

The Conservatives held on in Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in West London, but the majority was slashed to less than 500.

Labour’s Keir Mather secured the party’s biggest ever by-election win and overturned a majority of more than 20,000 in Selby and Ainsty to lead by 4,161 votes, while the Liberal Democrats turned the Tories’ 19,000 majority in Somerton and Frome into their own lead of over 11,000. 

The defeats in two previously safe Conservative seats indicate that the Conservatives’ drop in the polls in the last year could translate into a swathe of losses at the upcoming General Election. 

But the Prime Minister struck an upbeat tone in Uxbridge this morning, where he told broadcasters that their narrow win in the seat suggests that the next election is still to play for. Labour has maintained a significant poll lead throughout this year and is widely expected to enter government when people go to the polls in 2024.

“Westminster has been acting like the next election is a done deal, the Labour Party has been acting like it's a done deal,” Sunak said. 

“The people of Uxbridge just told all of them that it's not. No one expected us to win here. But Steve's victory demonstrates that when confronted with the actual reality of the Labour Party when there's an actual choice on a matter of substance at stake, people vote Conservative.” 

The three votes were triggered by the resignations of Boris Johnson and Nigel Adams in London and North Yorkshire following the report that found Johnson misled parliament over partygate, and also the departure of David Warburton following drug use and allegations of harassment, which he denies. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer will be disappointed to have not gained the London seat, but did manage to slash the previously Conservative majority of around 7,200 to barely 500.

Labour blamed the defeat on the controversial expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which will see drivers of non-compliant cars charged £12.50 a day from next month. 

A Labour spokesperson said that the vote was “always going to be a difficult battle in a seat that has never had a Labour MP, and we didn't even win in 1997".

They added: "We know that the Conservatives crashing the economy has hit working people hard, so it's unsurprising that the ULEZ expansion was a concern for voters here in a by-election." Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds similarly told the BBC ULEZ “is the issue that has clearly changed this”. 

Uxbridge's new Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell told LBC that the result had sent “a message to Sadiq Khan that the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip want total opposition to ULEZ”. 

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme that the "idea that we didn't know there was an issue on ULEZ is for the birds" and that "ULEZ was an issue on the ground". 

She said that both Labour and the Conservatives have to find ways to "do the right thing" on green policy but make sure "that we're not penalising people who can't afford [it] because we've not put appropriate schemes in place to help them change their behaviour and change their vehicle".

The Liberal Democrats lost their deposit in Uxbridge, with 1.7 per cent of the vote, 526 votes. 

In North Yorkshire it appears that a large number of Conservative voters stayed home, as Keir Mather became the first Labour MP for the constituency. 

In Selby and Ainsty, the Conservatives received 12,295 votes, compared to almost 34,000 at the last general election in 2019. The 16,456 votes for Labour at this week's by-election handed Mather a majority of 4,161 and marks the biggest majority Labour have ever overturned at a by-election. 

At just 25, Mather will become the 'baby of the House' – the youngest MP in the Commons – and said after his victory that he understands the "enormity of what has just happened".

"We have re-written the rules on where Labour can win," he said the count in North Yorkshire.

"Thousands of the votes cast yesterday were in Labour’s box for the very first time. For those of you who have put your faith in our party: thank you.”

Starmer congratulated Mather, and said the constituency had "made history". 

"This incredible result shows how powerful the demand for change is," he tweeted.

Later in the afternoon, Starmer spoke in front of Labour activists in Selby and Ainsty after he claimed people voted for "change" in the by-election. 

"We will deliver through Keir Mather and we'll deliver with the next Labour Government. This Labour Party has changed, what happened yesterday is vindication of that change. The priorities of working people are our priorities and that's why people are prepared to put their trust in the Labour Party.

"This should never have been a by-election, caused by the chaos, the division, the infighting from the Tory party. And that's why so many people have said to us they want change," Starmer added

The Labour leader was joined by Rayner and Mather, Selby and Ainsty's new MP. Labour's deputy leader joked that she was in a Keir sandwich as she addressed broadcasters and reporters. 

Speaking to BBC Breakfast this morning, Rayner hailed the party's "historic win" in Selby and Ainsty despite Labour's "narrow" loss in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. 

But Rayner was cautious to consider the. Selby victory in the context of a loss in Uxbridge, insisting the party must not be complacent. 

"We've got to keep our feet on the ground. Uxbridge wasn't the result, we narrowly lost again in that seat. Both [Selby and Ainsty, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip] are Tory seats and we won the Selby one but we didn't gain the Uxbridge one," she said. 

"One of the things we have to reflect on today is not only the mood against the Tories but also the decision in Uxbridge was related to Ulez." 

Conservative minister Johnny Mercer criticised Mather, and told Sky News that “we mustn’t become a repeat of The Inbetweeners," referencing the popular teen comedy.

"You’ve got to have people who have actually done stuff.”

Mercer said that voters “want people who are authentic, people who have worked in that constituency, who understand what life is like – to live, work and raise a family in communities like theirs”. 

There was further bad news for Sunak in Somerset where Sarah Dyke and the Liberal Democrats now have a majority of more than 11,000 and reclaimed a seat they held between 1997 and 2015. 

They overturned the 19,213 Conservative vote in 2019, while Labour lost their deposit in the seat, achieving just 2.6 per cent of the vote. 

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey described the victory as “stunning” and said “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”.

“Sarah Dyke will be an incredible local champion for the people of Somerset who have been neglected for far too long. She will fight for stronger local health services, better access to GPs and a fair deal for rural communities during this cost of living crisis," he continued. 

“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.”

David Lidington, former Conservative cabinet minister told LBD that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak needs the support of his own party, and urged him to "spell out a vision for the medium to long term" to turn the Tories electoral fortunes around. 

Greg Hands, the Conservative Party chairman, told Sky News that he believed voters were unhappy with his party after the events of last year, after the Tories held two leadership contests and the country had three prime ministers. 

"There are definitely lessons for us, we'll be listening carefully, studying carefully [to] those results," he said. 

"The Conservative Party had a difficult year last year, the backdrop to all three of the by-elections, the actual circumstances that caused the by-elections were not particularly favourable to the Conservatives.

"We'll be listening carefully, we'll be carrying on delivering in Government against the five priorities of halving inflation, restoring growth, cutting the debt, reducing hospital waiting times and stopping the boats."

He felt the Tories had made "good progress" this week with inflation falling, but added that Sunak needed "more time" to deliver in Government. 

Hands also told LBC voters were "unhappy" with the Consvertaive government and brand. However, he claimed he did not meet a "single person" enthused with Starmer while he was out campaigning. 

On Times Radio the Conservative Party chairman said by-elections are a "really a good indicator of what the coming general election will be like", as the Tories lost two seats in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome while they held Uxbridge and South Ruislip. 

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