The British Conservatives largely lost their majority on Friday July 21 in two of the three seats at stake in particularly scrutinized by-elections one year before the legislative elections in the United Kingdom, but they narrowly retained the constituency of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
These by-elections are seen as an indicator for the election period ahead, both for the Conservative majority at its lowest in the polls after 13 years in power, and for the Labor opposition which dreams of Downing Street in 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was tipped to become the first head of government to lose three seats in a single day but he escaped this humiliation thanks to the surprise victory of his camp in the former London constituency of Boris Johnson, where Labor was nevertheless given the winners.
On the other hand, the Tories suffered two serious setbacks in the other constituencies in play: in Somerton and Frome (south-west), the Lib-Dem candidate Sarah Dyke ousted the outgoing Conservative with more than 11,000 votes in advance.
Labor victory in the north of England
And in Selby and Ainsty (northern England), Labor succeeded in overthrowing the Conservatives who had until then a majority of more than 20,000 votes. This is the biggest reversal of majority for Labor in a by-election since the Second World War.
Winner Keir Mather (16,456 votes to 12,295 for the Tories), 25, said in a speech after the results that it had been “too long since the Tories here and in Westminster let us down”.
Labor leader Keir Starmer hailed him “a historic result which shows that people see Labor as a party that has changed”.
In Uxbridge and South Ruislip, west London, the Tories managed to narrowly retain (13,965 votes to 13,470) the seat at stake after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned from parliament in June.
Labor, although well placed, suffered from the unpopular extension of the tax on polluting vehicles, decided by the London town hall Labour, the “number one” problem in the constituency according to Steve Tuckwell, freshly elected.
This is “fantastic news” which “shows that the Conservatives can win in and around London”, reacted Boris Johnson.
A “test” ballot for the Conservative government
The ballot “is a test of how the country feels (…) after several years of crises in British politics”, a voter, Jonathan Haynes, said on Thursday in Uxbridge, leaving the polling station. With two wide defeats, the test is not good for the Conservative government.
Rishi Sunak had recognized it himself Wednesday evening with the deputies of his camp: these elections were shaping up to be a “tough battle” while the inflation observed for more than a year, despite a slowdown to 7.9% in June, weighed down the purchasing power of households and fueled many social movements.
The confidence rating of the 43-year-old Prime Minister – who entered Downing Street last October after the forced departures of Boris Johnson, swept away by scandals, and Liz Truss, dislodged in less than two months – fell this week to the lowest, with 65% of Britons who have an unfavorable opinion of him according to the YouGov institute.
To make matters worse, his popular defense minister Ben Wallace announced last week that he would not stand again, like around fifty other deputies.
He will also leave the government at the next reshuffle, expected in September. Unless Rishi Sunak renews his team this week to regain the initiative.
Labor popular in polls
For their part, Labor, under the leadership of Keir Starmer, enjoy a lead of more than 10 points in the polls and dream of taking back Downing Street after 13 years of Conservative power. They have already won six by-elections since March 2022, including two seats taken from the Tories.
Having become a cantor of budgetary responsibility, Keir Starmer however drew the wrath of some of his troops this week by opposing better social assistance for large families. Perceived as not very charismatic, he is judged unfavorably by the majority of the British.