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Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives suffered two crushing defeats in UK parliamentary by-elections on Friday but avoided a “3-0” defeat by unexpectedly holding on to Boris Johnson’s old Uxbridge seat.
The serious problems facing the British prime minister were highlighted when the opposition Labor Party won its biggest by-election in the once safe Tory seat of Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire.
Earlier the centrist Liberal Democrats broke a huge Tory majority to win the seats of Somerton and Frome, opening a dangerous new front for Sunak in the Tory heartlands of England’s south west.
Sunac’s party trails the opposition Labor Party by 20 points in opinion polls, and is plagued by high inflation, failing public services and the recent chaos of the Johnson and Liz Truss premierships.
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party’s victory in Yorkshire showed “how powerful the demand for change is”. Labor has been out of power since Gordon Brown was kicked out of Downing Street in 2010.
But Sunak’s fears of a by-election wipe out were raised early on Friday when the Tories narrowly won the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seats vacated by Johnson by a margin of less than 500 votes.
The Tory win in Uxbridge was attributed to concerns over the planned extension of the charge on polluting vehicles to “ultra-low emission zones” in outer London boroughs, organized by the capital’s Labor mayor Sadiq Khan.
Steve Tuckwell, the winning Tory candidate, said: “Sadiq Khan has lost Labor this election, and we know it was his damaging and costly ULEZ policy that caused him to lose this election.”
The Conservatives polled 13,965 to the opposition Labor Party’s 13,470, a Tory majority of 495, but local issues in Uxbridge did not overshadow disastrous results for Sunac elsewhere.
Labour, which hopes to return to power at next year’s election, won Selby and Anstey from the Tories, who won it in 2019 by a margin of 20,137. It was the largest majority ever overturned by Labor in such a contest.
Starmer said: “This is a historic result which shows that people are looking to Labor and see a changed party that is fully focused on the priorities of working people and has an ambitious, practical plan to deliver them.”
Labor candidate Keir Mather won Selby with 16,456 votes, beating the Tory candidate by 12,295 votes.
Lib Dem wins in Somerton and Frome on Friday morning gave Sir Ed Davey hope of winning back Tory seats in the South West. “This stunning victory shows that the Liberal Democrats are firmly back in the West Country,” said Davey.
In Somerton and Frome, the Lib Dems’ Sarah Dyke won 21,187 votes, easily beating the Conservatives’ 10,179 votes. Former Tory MP David Warburton was forced to resign over a drugs scandal.
All three defeats in by-elections would be the first such humiliation for a British prime minister since 1968 when Labour’s Harold Wilson lost three contests on the same day.
Despite the narrow Uxbridge victory after the recount, some Conservative MPs believe the defeats in Selby and Somerset are a prelude to a catastrophic general election defeat next year.
Sunak insists he can still turn things around and win a fifth consecutive election. In a message to Tory MPs on Wednesday night, the Prime Minister sought to boost her party’s morale, pointing to a sharp fall in inflation this week as a turning tide of bad economic news.
Sunak has vowed to make a fall comeback by offering a new “long-term vision” for the country. The Autumn Financial Statement and the King’s Speech legislative package will be defining moments for the Prime Minister.