Rishi Sunak has defended the Conservatives after two by-election losses, claiming mid-term polls are “always difficult” and “local factors” were at play.
The party lost its seats in both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire in the early hours of Friday morning, as Labour overturned two huge Conservative majorities to deal a double blow to the government.
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the results showed his party could “now win anywhere” and that former Tory voters were switching allegiances at the ballot box.
But the prime minister insisted the “context” was everything, telling broadcasters: “Obviously [these were] disappointing results and not least because our candidates… worked very hard and I know they will continue to be great local champions in their communities.
“It is important to remember the context – midterm by-elections are always difficult for an incumbent government and of course there were also local factors at play here.
“[But] I am committed to delivering on the priorities of the British people.”
The contests were trigged after the high-profile exits of Nadine Dorries, after she was denied a peerage on Boris Johnson’s honours list, and Chris Pincher, who faced an eight-week suspension over groping allegations.
Mid Bedfordshire saw the largest numeric Tory majority ever overturned by Labour at a by-election since 1945 – despite the constituency being blue since 1931 – as Alistair Strathern took the seat with a majority of 1,192 over his Tory rival Festus Akinbusoye.
And in Tamworth, a 23.9% swing to Labour eradicated the previous Tory majority of 19,600, with Sarah Edwards defeating Andrew Cooper by a majority of 1,316 – the second-highest-ever by-election swing to Labour.
Even before the prime minister’s comments, senior Conservatives had been trying to portray the defeats as mid-term blues, along with claiming that their own supporters had stayed at home, rather than making the switch to the opposition.
But one Tory MP told Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby that their colleagues were “deluded” if they believed that.
Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the two results were “extremely bad news” for the Conservatives and suggested Mr Sunak was on course for general election defeat when it comes around next year.
“This isn’t destiny, but it is a pointer,” he said. “And it is a pointer that, unless the Conservatives can fairly dramatically and fairly radically turn things around, then they are in truth staring defeat in the face in 12 months’ time.”
He also warned that, as well as the Tories risking votes drifting to Labour on the left, they could fall to Reform UK – formally Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – on the right.
But the prime minister insisted to reporters that he was going to focus on his priorities rather than the losses, adding: “That’s why we are going to keep on with halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping the boats.
“Also over the past month, I have set out some long-term decisions that will change our country for the better.”
He referred to “a new approach to net zero that will save families thousands of pounds, ensuring that we take a different approach to HS2 [by] investing £36bn in hundreds of other transport projects around the country that will benefit people faster, and ensuring an entire generation of our young children can grow up without smoking.
“Those are the type of decisions that I am making for our country, that’s the change that I am delivering, and I am committed to delivering for the British people.”