LONDON — LONDON (AP) — Britain’s ruling Conservative Party suffered two resounding defeats Friday in a trio of special elections, but avoided a blowout by retaining former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s seat in suburban London.
Although the main opposition Labor Party and smaller centrist Liberal Democrats defeated massive Conservative majorities to win one seat each, the Conservatives found some crumbs of solace in their narrow success in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London.
Still, Thursday’s election results, if replicated in a likely general election next year, would certainly see Labor emerge as the largest single party, possibly with a sizable overall majority. Despite holding Johnson’s previous seat by just 495 votes, the three election results show the Conservatives losing ground among a wide range of voters: suburban Londoners, small-towners in the north of England and rural residents in the south-west.
Sunak addressed the scene of his party’s only electoral success, noting that governments often find midterm elections difficult.
“The message I take with me is that we have to redouble our efforts, stick to our plan and deliver to the people,” he said at a cafe in Ruislip.
Labor leader Keir Starmer is also heading to Selby and Ainsty in the north of England, where 25-year-old candidate Keir Mather managed to secure the party’s second-biggest turnaround in a special election since 1945.
“This is a historic result that shows that people are looking at Labor and seeing a changed party that is completely focused on workers’ priorities with a practical and ambitious plan to deliver,” Starmer said after the result was announced.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems took Somerton and Frome in the South West of England in a similar turn away from the Conservatives.
“The people of Somerton and Frome have spoken for the rest of the country that they are fed up with Rishi Sunak’s disengaged Conservative government,” said Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.
What is clear about those two elections is that voters for both opposition parties clearly backed the party most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. Faced with this level of tactical voting, the losses are likely to leave many Conservative lawmakers baffled ahead of next year’s likely national vote.
The defeats do not mean a change of government, as the Conservatives still have a large majority in the House of Commons.
For months, opinion polls have given Labor a double-digit lead, sometimes as much as 20%, across the country over the Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010.
The party has been hit by the fallout from the tumultuous tenures of Johnson and his successor as prime minister, Liz Truss, who resigned just weeks after her plan for unfunded tax cuts alarmed financial markets, fueling a cost-of-living crisis and seeing mortgage costs soar.
Johnson, who resigned as prime minister last September, resigned from Parliament last month after being accused of misleading the House of Commons over statements he made about the lockdown violations. The former Selby lawmaker, a Johnson ally, followed him to the door as the Somerton and Frome MP resigned amid sex and drug allegations.
In light of those resounding defeats, there is speculation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is due to call a general election for January 2025, may seek to shake up his government with a cabinet reshuffle on Friday.
As Sunak ponders his options, much of the focus will be on Labor leader Starmer, who has been cautious in outlining his plans for government.
The party’s failure to secure victory in Johnson’s old seat is likely to raise some concern over London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand an anti-pollution zone to all of the capital’s outer boroughs, a move that will see many vintage cars and diesel vehicles face a daily emissions charge.