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Rishi Sunak On Edge As Labour And Lib Dems Eye By-Election Victories

The Tories’ preparations for next Thursday’s three by-elections was perhaps summed up best in the Commons chamber on Thursday.

Asked whether he agreed that the people of Selby and Ainsty should elect Labour’s Keir Mather to be their new MP, transport secretary Mark Harper took fully 30 seconds just to locate the name of the Tory candidate in his bundle of pre-prepared notes. It’s Claire Holmes, by the way.

With a majority of 20,137, the seat should be ultra-safe for the Tories, especially when you consider that Labour has never overturned a deficit of that size in a by-election before.

Nevertheless, with just days to go until polling day, Labour insiders are increasingly confident that they are about to pull off a seismic victory.

The by-election was caused by Nigel Adams’s surprise decision to stand down, seemingly in protest at being blocked from receiving a peerage in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours.

“There’s real anger in the constituency towards Adams for standing down,” says a senior Labour source.

“Local people see it as another example of Tory chaos because they were left without an MP. Traditional Tory voters are in revolt, basically.”

He added: “There’s a growing feeling that the Tories are running scared.

“For them to lose Selby would be absolutely extraordinary. It is a properly safe as houses Tory seat.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer with Keir Mather, Labour’s candidate in Selby.

Danny Lawson – PA Images via Getty Images

Voters will also be going to the polls in Somerton and Frome, where local MP David Warburton quit last month.

He was suspended by the Tories last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Warburton retained the seat in 2019 with a majority of more than 19,000, but it would be an enormous shock if it did not fall to the Lib Dems next Thursday.

It’s barely a year since the party overturned a 24,000 majority to win in Tiverton and Honiton, so this one should be relatively straightforward by comparison. Lib Dem insiders remain cautious, however.

“The thing that’s tough for us is it’s a short campaign,” a source told HuffPost UK. “We had a much longer lead-in time in Tiverton, which allowed us to get campaigning earlier.

“The kitchen sink is being thrown at this one, though. We’ve had an MP here every day, and Ed Davey’s been here four times so far, so it’s pretty full-on.

“There’s a lot of anger out there at David Warburton. Everybody knows him and is unhappy with his behaviour and the fact that he’s left them without an MP.

“There’s also a feeling that local people are just completely fed up with the Tories.”

One gloomy Tory said it would be “a mind-blowing shock” if the party somehow managed to hold onto the seat.

Ironically, the Conservatives do retain some hope of holding onto the third seat up for grabs on Thursday, despite it being the one where they have the smallest majority.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip fell vacant following the dramatic resignation of one Boris Johnson, who retained the seat in 2019 with a relatively-slim majority of 7,210.

The Tories have turned the by-election contest into a referendum on Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the whole of London from next month.

This could see drivers in the constituency being forced to pay £12.50 a day if their vehicles fail to meet strict environmental standards.

“It is the most dominated by-election by a single issue that isn’t about the government that I can remember,” said Tory peer and polling expert Robert Hayward.

“I spoke to a Labour person who said to me that they now think there’s a better chance of them gaining Selby than there is of them winning in Uxbridge, which is amazing when you look at the respective majorities.”

A Labour source conceded: “If it wasn’t for the ULEZ stuff, we would be absolutely smashing it. But that has made it really tricky.”

The Tories have turned the Uxbridge by-election into a referendum on ULEZ
The Tories have turned the Uxbridge by-election into a referendum on ULEZ

SOPA Images via Getty Images

It would still count as a shock, however, if the Tories were to somehow cling on in Uxbridge.

It means that, as things stand, the Conservatives are on course to lose three seats on the same day, something which would count as a personal humiliation for Rishi Sunak.

Less than nine months into his premiership, there is little sign that Sunak has managed to dig his party out of the electoral hole that Johnson and Liz Truss managed to put them in.

He continues to fail on all five of the pledges he made to voters in January, and while the opinion polls have tightened slightly in recent days, the Conservatives still remain well behind Labour.

“The Tories are now on the crest of a trough,” Hayward told HuffPost UK.

A triple defeat next Thursday – with two more difficult by-election defences coming down the track in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth – could confirm Sunak’s status as a lame duck PM destined to be removed from power in 2024.

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