Disaster for Rishi Sunak as Labour overturns big Tory majorities in double by-election defeat

Rishi Sunak has suffered a devastating double blow as Labour stormed to back-to-back by-election victories overnight.

Hours after official figures showed Britain has fallen into a recession, the prime minister saw Labour overturn huge Tory majorities in Kingswood and Wellingborough.

The devastating losses will add to pressure on Mr Sunak from Tory backbenchers worried about losing their seats with a general election looming. And strong performances from Reform UK will set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street, with the party living up to its 10 per cent plus national poll ratings in by-elections for the first time.

Labour’s Gen Kitchen overturned a huge Tory majority in Wellingborough (PA)
Labour’s Gen Kitchen overturned a huge Tory majority in Wellingborough (PA)

In the Kingswood contest to replace Chris Skidmore, who resigned in protest at the government’s plans to boost North Sea oil and gas drilling, Damien Egan overturned an 11,000 Tory majority, winning with a majority of 2,501 votes.

And hours later, in the Wellingborough by-election to replace disgraced former Conservative MP Peter Bone, Labour’s Gen Kitchen secured 13,844 votes to beat the Tories’ Helen Harrison by more than 6,000.

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

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

And the back-to-back losses mean the Conservatives have suffered more by-election defeats in this parliament than any previous government since the 1960s, surpassing the eight defeats experienced by John Major between 1992 and 1997.

Chris Hopkins, director of polling company Savanta, told The Independent the results were “really positive” for Labour after a difficult week for the party.

But he added: “I think we have to express a bit of caution. The swing in Kingswood isn’t perhaps as large as some polling tends to indicate it should have been, and while Wellingborough is a great result, I think we’ve got to assume the reason for the by-election and the subsequent choosing of the Tory candidate [Mr Bone’s partner] has had a perhaps larger-than-usual benefit for Labour.”

The back-to-back losses put Rishi Sunak on course for electoral disaster (PA Wire)
The back-to-back losses put Rishi Sunak on course for electoral disaster (PA Wire)

Mr Hopkins said the contests were a reminder that “the Tories are losing an unprecedented amount of by-elections, and often they’re losing large majorities”.

And pollster Luke Tryl, of research organisation More In Common, said it was a “horrible night for the Tories” and a “great night for Labour”, with Sir Keir “further on course for No 10”.

After the results of the Wellingborough contest were confirmed, Sir Keir said the “fantastic” wins show “people want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party to deliver it”.

He said: “By winning in these Tory strongholds, we can confidently say that Labour is back in the service of working people and we will work tirelessly to deliver for them.

“The Tories have failed. Rishi’s recession proves that. That’s why we’ve seen so many former Conservative voters switching directly to this changed Labour Party.”

Wellingborough was the second-most marginal seat in Sir Tony Blair’s 1997 election win when Paul Stinchcombe turned the seat red by 187 votes.

And Ms Kitchen’s win puts Sir Keir on course to repeat the success of his predecessor, with an election expected this autumn.

Ms Kitchen said: “The people of Wellingborough have spoken for Britain. This is a stunning victory for the Labour Party and must send a message from Northamptonshire to Downing Street.”

And Mr Egan launched a scathing attack on the prime minister, calling for voters to oust the Tories when Mr Sunak “finds the courage” to call a general election.

Labour’s Damien Egan said the Conservatives have ‘sucked the hope out of Britain’ (PA Wire)
Labour’s Damien Egan said the Conservatives have ‘sucked the hope out of Britain’ (PA Wire)

He added: “In Kingswood, as across the country, 14 years of Conservative government have sucked the hope out of our country with a feeling that no matter how hard you work, you just can’t move forward.

“And with Rishi’s recession, we’re left again paying more and getting less. It doesn’t have to be this way. You know it, I know it, we all know it.”

The prime minister will also be concerned by strong performances for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK in both seats, with the party securing enough votes in Kingswood to deprive the Tories of a win.

Meanwhile in Wellingborough, former MEP Ben Habib came third, winning 3,919 votes, compared with Tory candidate Ms Harrison’s 7,408. The party’s vote share was the highest it has recorded in a by-election yet, at 13 per cent, higher than it is currently polling nationally.

The Tories fear that a surge in support for Reform, which could be exacerbated if Mr Farage rejoins the party in a formal role, would cost them tens of seats at the general election.

The country’s most senior pollster, Sir John Curtice, said last night’s results show the Conservatives are in “deep, deep electoral trouble”.

Sir John told the BBC that although the 21-point drop in support in Kingswood is in line with what the party is “currently suffering in the opinion polls”, it is the Wellingborough result of 37-38 points that is “the biggest Tory loss the Conservatives have ever managed to suffer in a post-war by-election”.

Referring to the Kingswood outcome, Tory former business secretary Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “I think we should learn from this result and look at what happened with the Reform Party vote.

“Conservative Party votes are most likely to come from people who stay at home or who voted Reform. How do we win them back to the Tory family?”

He suggested the party cut taxes, pull back from net zero measures and “take more of the advantages of Brexit”.

The prime minister defended his party’s drubbing in the by-election defeats. Speaking to ITV News, Mr Sunak said: “Mid-term elections are always difficult for incumbent governments and the circumstances of these elections were, of course, particularly challenging.

“Now, if you look at the results, very low turnout, it shows that we’ve got work to do to show people that we are delivering on their priorities and that’s what I’m absolutely determined to do.”

He added: “But it also shows that there isn’t a huge amount of enthusiasm for the alternative in Keir Starmer and the Labour Party and that’s because they don’t have a plan – and if you don’t have a plan, you can’t deliver real change when the general election comes.”

Despite the technical recession and two record by-election losses, the prime minister insisted that “our plan is working” and he could “give everyone the piece of mind that there is a better future for them and their families”.

He added: “We’ve clearly been through a lot over the past couple of years as a country but I genuinely believe at the start of this year, we’re pointing in the right direction.

“Now we’re not out of the woods yet but across all the priorities that I set out, we’re making progress.”