Tories reeling from huge by-election defeats urge Sunak to change course as support is ‘collapsing’

Keir Starmer said the results showed ‘the country is crying out for change’

Kate Devlin,Zoe Grunewald,Archie Mitchell
Friday 16 February 2024 17:25 GMT
Sunak breaks silence after double by-election defeat in Wellingborough and Kingswood

Rishi Sunak is under increasing pressure from within his own party to change course amid warnings that historic back-to-back by-election defeats show support for the Conservatives is “collapsing” .

Labour overturned huge Tory majorities to take the seats of Kingswood, in Gloucestershire, and Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire, hours after official figures showed the UK had fallen into recession.

The results set a nearly 60-year record, with the government presiding over more by-election losses in a single parliament than any administration since the 1960s.

The Wellingborough result also saw the largest ever drop in the Conservatives’ vote share in a by-election, surpassing Christchurch in 1993.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the results showed “the country is crying out for change”. But Mr Sunak tried to play down the joint blows as he blamed the “particularly challenging" challenging circumstances surrounding both by-elections – and insisted his “plan” was working.

The votes were called after one former Tory minister resigned in protest at Mr Sunak’s watering down of environmental commitments and another was found guilty of bullying and sexual misconduct.

The bruising defeat came as:

  • Mr Sunak set a new post-war record for the number of Tory by-election defeats, surpassing the eight suffered by John Major in the run-up to Tony Blair's 1997 landslide victory
  • A Tory minister disowned his party’s selective editing of a video of Sadiq Khan accidentally calling Labour antisemitic, removing the London’s mayor’s correction
  • Nigel Farage’s Reform took more votes in one of the by-elections than the Labour majority – a result that will rattle Tory nerves
  • A leading pollster said the results showed the Conservatives are in ‘deep, deep electoral trouble’
  • Tory peer Ed Vaizey said Mr Sunak was not a “brilliant politician” but could improve

Tory peer Lord Frost, who recently fronted a bombshell poll linked to a Tory plot to oust Mr Sunak, said the party’s vote was "collapsing" as he called for more Conservative policies on issues like tax, spending, immigration and net zero. He warned the prime minister: “It's late, but not – yet – too late.”

The New Conservatives group within the party warned their leader he "must change course" and “adapt to the reality that the by-elections reveal" by making voters a better offer, including tax cuts and curbs on legal migration curbs.

One MP, Andrea Jenkyns, publicly repeated her call for Mr Sunak’s head, warning her party that “sticking heads in the sand will make matters worse”.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg hit out at the plotters, telling The Independent: “Any Conservative who thinks a war of attrition against the leader would help or be sensible, in the year of an election, needs urgent restraint in Colney Hatch”. Colney Hatch was a lunatic asylum often referred to in PG Wodehouse’s novels.

Former minister Paul Scully warned tax cuts – a key ask of many Tory MPs – would not be enough to bring our Tory voters currently sitting at home. They are asking for “Conservative values and a vision to get behind, as well to stop the infighting within the party,” he told GB News.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) is joined by musician Feargal Sharkey canvassing voters by phone for the Wellingborough (PA)

As well as taxes, the party has “got to set out a vision on housing. What are we going to do for young people? What are we going to do about migration in a sensible way that's achievable.”

One former cabinet minister urged Mr Sunak to call a May election, for the sake of the party’s future. An early poll is “our best chance of getting most (Tory MPs) back,” he said. “Otherwise it will seem like we are just holding on".

Sir Keir said the results showed Labour are "credible contenders'' for the 2024 general election, but "that is all we are.”

Warning against complacency, he said he wanted his party, currently thumping the Tories in the opinion polls, to “fight like we are five points behind”.

He also hailed "Tory switchers" who he said made up part of the Labour vote.

But he admitted the last week had been “bumpy” after Labour was forced to dump a candidate in a separate by-election in Rochdale who had said Israel allowed the October 7 Hamas massacre that killed 1,200.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking to the media while visiting Harlow Police Station in Essex (Dan Kitwood/PA) (PA Wire)

However, he insisted the victories showed the public recognised Labour had changed since Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, when it was dogged by antisemitism allegations.

Labour overturned majorities of 11,220 and 18,540 in Kingswood and Wellingborough respectively, delivering the government's ninth and tenth by-election defeats of the current Parliament.

Gen Kitchen secured Wellingborough with 45.8 per cent of the vote, while Damien Egan won Kingswood with 44.9 per cent of the vote.

Farage’s Reform party won more than 10 per cent of the vote in both by-elections. While the party will struggle to win any seats at the election, Tory MPs fear it could take enough votes in some Tory-held constituencies to hand them to Labour.

Party leader Richard Tice called it a “defining moment” and showed Reform was a “significant force now in British politics”.

Mr Farage, the honorary president of Reform, sought to add to the PM’s woes, telling BBC Radio 4: “I think if you asked Tory Party members right now, they’d vote for me to be leader and not Rishi Sunak. ”

Polling guru Sir John Curtice said: “Tory MPs will now be even more concerned that the determination of Reform's leader, Richard Tice, that his party should contest all Tory-held seats could cost them dearly.

Overall, he said the results showed the Conservatives are in “deep, deep electoral trouble”.

Former Conservative MP Peter Bone (PA) (PA Archive)

In Wellingborough, Labour sources pointed to the huge 28.5 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour, the second largest swing from Tory to Labour at a by-election since the Second World War, adding that if the trend was replicated at a general election the Tories would hold just four seats.

Chris Hopkins, director of polling company Savanta, told The Independent the results were “really positive” for Labour after a difficult week for the party, though he said the choice of the Tory candidate in Wellingborough [Mr Bone’s partner] “has had a perhaps larger-than-usual benefit for Labour.”

Tory sources suggested Mr Bone, who campaigned in the contest, triggered by constituents signing a petition to boot him out, had been a “drag” on their vote.

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