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Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives narrowly retained the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in a surprise result of a British Parliament by-election but were set to lose two more seats in a night of political drama.
Sunak’s ruling party retained the London seat vacated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson by less than 500 votes, but the result, which came just before 3am, dismissed the threat of a ‘3-0’ by-election debacle for the prime minister.
Within minutes, however, the Tories lost the South West seat of Somerton and Frome to the centrist Liberal Democrats, who turned a Conservative majority of nearly 20,000 into a Liberal Democrat majority of more than 10,000.
The Tory victory in Uxbridge was attributed to concern over the planned extension of the “ultra low emission zone”, a tax on dirty vehicles, to outer London boroughs planned by the capital’s Labor mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Steve Tuckwell, the winning Conservative candidate, said: ‘Sadiq Khan has lost Labor this election, and we know it was his damaging and costly ULEZ policy that lost them this election.
The Tories voted 13,965 to opposition Labour’s 13,470, a Tory majority of 495. The result will be a huge relief for Sunak, who had been set to lose three by-elections in a single day in what would have been a blow to his ruling Tories.
Sunak’s party trails opposition Labor by 20 points in opinion polls, and is dogged by high inflation, failing public services and the recent chaos of prime ministers Johnson and Liz Truss.
Few expected the Tories to hold Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The contest was sparked by Johnson’s resignation after it was discovered he had lied to MPs about parties being held in Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Labour, who hope to return to power in next year’s election, were optimistic about winning the seat of Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire from the Tories, who won it in 2019 by a margin of 20,137.
The Lib Dem victory on Friday morning at Somerton and Frome gave Sir Ed Davey’s party a vital foothold in the hearts of Tories across the English West Country.
In that Somerset seat, Sarah Dyke of the Lib Dems won 21,187 votes, easily beating the Tories’ 10,179. Former Tory MP David Warburton had been forced to resign over a drugs scandal.
A trio of by-election defeats would have been the first such humiliation for a British prime minister since 1968, when Labour’s Harold Wilson lost three contests in a single day.
Despite Uxbridge’s narrow victory, which came after a recount, some Tory MPs believe defeats in Selby and Somerset would portend a calamitous defeat in the general election next year.
Sunak insists he can still turn the tide and secure a fifth consecutive election victory, preventing Labor from taking power for the first time since Gordon Brown was forced out of 10 Downing Street in 2010.
In a message to Tory MPs on Wednesday evening, the Prime Minister tried to boost his party’s morale, pointing to this week’s sharp drop in inflation as a sign that a tide of bad economic news could be turning.
Jonathan Gullis, a Tory MP, said: ‘He was asking us all to unite behind him when we return in the fall. We have to be one team. A united party wins, a divided party loses.
Uxbridge is the kind of suburban seat Tories need to cling to if they want to retain their grip on power, but Selby is generally seen as a rock-solid rural Tory stronghold.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats see the victory in Somerton and Frome as a sign that they are making a comeback in the West, which is largely represented by Tory MPs.
Sunak promised to stage a return in the fall, offering a new “long-term vision” for the country. An autumn financial statement and the King’s Speech legislative package will be pivotal moments for the Prime Minister.