UK voters deliver double blow to Rishi Sunak, electing Labour lawmakers in 2 special elections

LONDON (AP) — Voters in two districts in England delivered new blows to beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, electing opposition-party lawmakers in seats that Sunak’s Conservatives had held for years.

Labour Party candidate Damien Egan won the House of Commons seats of Kingswood in southwest England, and Labour’s Gen Kitchen took Wellingborough in the country’s center, results announced Friday showed. The Conservatives won both by large margins at the last national election in 2019 but saw support collapse in Thursday’s special elections.

The hard-right Reform U.K. — formerly known as the Brexit Party — came third, putting more pressure on the Conservatives.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the results “show people want change.”

The results will likely worsen fears among Conservatives that, after 14 years in power, the party is heading for defeat when a national election is held in less than a year. The Tories consistently lag between 10 and 20 points behind the left-of-center Labour in opinion polls.

Thursday’s elections replaced two lawmakers who left suddenly, one in protest, the other under a cloud.

Lawmaker Chris Skidmore quit the Kingswood seat last month to protest Sunak’s lack of commitment to green energy. Long-serving Wellingborough legislator Peter Bone was ousted over allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct.

The Conservatives have now lost 10 by-elections since the last general election, more than any administration since the 1960s. That includes six defeats — and one win — since Sunak took office in October 2022. He replaced Liz Truss, who rocked the economy with a plan for unfunded tax cuts and lasted just seven weeks in office.

Sunak, the fifth Conservative leader since 2016, has restored a measure of stability, but failed to revive the governing party’s popularity.

The Conservatives have been in power nationally since 2010, years that saw austerity following the world banking crisis, Britain’s divisive decision to leave the European Union, a global pandemic and a European war that triggered the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

Polls show the Conservatives are losing support across the country, from affluent southern voters turned off by Brexit to working-class northern voters who switched from Labour for the 2019 election, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to spread prosperity to long-neglected areas.

Those promises remain largely unmet, and Britain’s economic growth has come to a virtual standstill, with the country slipping into recession at the end of 2023 for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In Kingswood, as across the country, 14 years of Conservative government have sucked the hope out of our country with a feeling that no matter how hard you work, you just can’t move forward,” Egan said in his victory speech. “It doesn’t have to be this way — you know it, I know it, we all know it.”

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden called the results “very disappointing,” though the party said the low turnout — less than 40% of eligible voters cast ballots — was a sign British electors are not enthusiastic about Labour.

But University of Strathclyde polling expert John Curtice said the results confirmed that the Conservatives are in “very, very considerable electoral trouble.”

“The Conservatives are going to have to defeat the historical record to come back from where they are,” he told the BBC.

The Conservative losses may embolden Sunak’s many rivals in the fractious party, who are already positioning themselves for the leadership contest that would likely follow an election defeat. Some even want to oust Sunak sooner, replacing him with a low-tax, low-immigration right-winger who might win back voters from Reform. Others warn that foisting another unelected leader on the country might backfire.

Sunak’s only consolation is that Labour is also experiencing turbulence. Last week the party watered down a key green investment pledge, saying the Conservatives had left the economy too weak to honor the commitment.

Starmer also is struggling to stamp out allegations of antisemitism within the party. This week the party disowned its candidate for another special election after a newspaper published remarks he had made during a local party meeting claiming that Israel allowed Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to happen as a pretext to invade Gaza.

Critics say it’s evidence Labour has not rooted out the antisemitism that festered under previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel. It’s unclear whether the controversy has hurt Labour in opinion polls.

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