Britain’s Conservative Party, having feared it would lose all three parliamentary by-elections held this week, managed to cling to victory in one of them. But the Conservatives lost the other two seats by wide margins, spelling trouble for the looming general election. Here are four takeaways from the vote.
Sunak is down but not out
Hobbled by Britain’s faltering economy and the serial scandals in his party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had been viewed as the leader of a zombie government, destined for defeat by the opposition Labour Party. The election results don’t alter that negative prognosis, but the unexpected Conservative victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, formerly represented by Boris Johnson, strips Labour of its invincible veneer.
Mr. Sunak got relief on the economic front as well this week, with the announcement that the inflation rate, while still high, had fallen more than expected in June. That opens the door to the prime minister achieving one of his government’s key targets: cutting the inflation rate in half by the end of this year.
In a surprisingly upbeat visit to a cafe in Uxbridge on Friday, Mr. Sunak told Sky News, “The message I take away is that we’ve got to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people.” The results, he said, showed that “when confronted with the actual reality of the Labour Party, when there’s an actual choice on a matter of substance at stake, people vote Conservative.”
That is likely to be Mr. Sunak’s blueprint for the election, which he must call by January 2025. He is banking that the economy will have rebounded enough that the Conservatives will be able to take credit for steering Britain through a tough stretch and to persuade voters that switching to Labour is too big a risk.
Tactical voting threatens the Tories
In Britain’s political system, a member of Parliament is elected to represent one of 650 electoral districts, and contests are fought on a winner-takes-all basis. The candidate with the most votes becomes a lawmaker, while the ballots of those who preferred anyone else count for nothing.
So, voters often face a dilemma: Should they vote for the person they really want, even if they have no real chance of winning, or should they opt for someone better placed to defeat the candidate they most dislike? Tactical voters make the second of those two choices and, as at other times in the past, this trend is now threatening damage to an unpopular Conservative Party.
In Somerton and Frome, in southwestern England, the centrist Liberal Democrats swept to victory, but not just because traditional Conservative supporters switched to them. In the words of the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, Labour supporters also “lent us their support” in voting for Sarah Dyke to defeat the Tory candidate. The same thing seems to have happened in reverse in Selby and Ainsty, in northern England, where Labour won.
Tactical voting really works for the opposition parties only when it is clear which one of them is best place to defeat the Conservatives. But the trend is ominous for Mr. Sunak because, after a spell of acute unpopularity, the Liberal Democrats are recovering, have positioned themselves as fierce opponents of the Tories, and they hope to win some of the Tory heartland areas in southern England.
The signs from these by-elections are that, when the next general election comes, Mr. Sunak could face a genuine electoral squeeze.
Uxbridge shows all politics is local
By grinding out a narrow victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Mr. Sunak’s Conservatives proved their mettle as campaigners in one area of outer London, despite their woes on the national stage.
Their winning candidate, Steve Tuckwell, is a former postal worker who stacked supermarket shelves when he was young. His campaign largely disowned Mr. Johnson, the scandal-prone former prime minister, who held the seat until his resignation from Parliament triggered the contest to replace him.
But as Mr. Tuckwell acknowledged, it was the expansion to outer London, including Uxbridge, of an ultralow emissions zone, or U.L.E.Z., that galvanized support for the Tories. Under the scheme, those driving older, more polluting, cars, would be charged £12.50, or $16, a day for using them — a fee that is naturally unpopular with owners of aging vehicles.
The expansion of the zone, which already operates in central London, was the brainchild of the city’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the Conservatives positioned themselves as its main opponents. Mr. Khan argues that the zone is essential to improve poor air quality, which is known to have contributed to at least one death in London. But at a time of economic stress, the vote in Uxbridge could sharpen a wider debate over who pays the cost of the transition to a greener economy.
Labour’s hopeful bellwether
Of the three races, the landmark result in Selby and Ainsty is the best bellwether for Britain’s long-term political direction. The Conservatives had held the district in North Yorkshire since it was created in 2010, a period that coincides with the party being in government. To win there, Labour had to overturn the largest Conservative majority in a by-election since World War II.
A rural region with a legacy of coal mining, Selby and Ainsty is not a classic “red wall,” or Labour stronghold, a district of the kind that the party lost to the Conservatives in huge numbers in the 2019 general election. But the Labour victory there suggests that the party can compete to regain the seats it lost in other districts in the Midlands and the north of England, which are critical to winning a parliamentary majority.
The Labour victory is resonant for symbolic reasons, too: Selby and Ainsty is not far south of Mr. Sunak’s district in North Yorkshire. The new Labour member of Parliament, Keir Mather, 25, shares the same first name as the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, who in turn is named after Labour’s first parliamentary leader, Keir Hardie.
In a triumphant visit to the district, Mr. Starmer gestured to the young victor and joked, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to say, ‘Well done, Keir.’” The result, he said, was a “vote for change,” adding, “The priorities of working people are our priorities, and that’s why people are prepared to put their trust in the Labour Party.”