Sunak faces toughest by-election yet, says resigning Tory as date set for double contest

Former Tory MP Chris Skidmore warned Rishi Sunak that the party faces its “toughest by-election fight so far” in his seat, as dates emerged for two difficult contests.

The former MP for Kingswood quit in protest over the PM’s “harmful” watering down of net zero pledges that would “destroy the reputation of the UK as a climate leader”.

Mr Sunak faces a double by-election challenge next month after the government formally triggered the local elections to replace Peter Bone and Mr Skidmore.

Tory chief whip Simon Hart issuing the writs for the vacant seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood on Thursday.

The by-elections have to take place between 21 and 27 working days from the issuing of the writs – suggesting they will almost certainly take place on 15 February.

Former Tory Mr Bone was handed a six-week suspension from the Commons after an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct. More than 10 per cent of voters in Wellingborough then voted to recall him, paving the way for a by-election.

Former minister Chris Skidmore said he does not regret quitting parliament (PA Archive)
Former minister Chris Skidmore said he does not regret quitting parliament (PA Archive)

And Mr Skidmore, the government’s former net zero tsar, resigned over the government’s plans to boost oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. He has refused to endorse his former party as it fights to keep hold of his seat.

In 2019, the Conservatives secured a majority of 18,000 in Wellingborough and 11,000 in Kingswood – the sort of majorities that Labour has overturned in several by-elections in the past year.

Mr Skidmore said he stands by his decision following a long period of reflection in which he had become increasingly at odds on the environment. “I don’t regret the decision and I still think it’s the right one.”

But his decision to step down this week rather than wait until the poll has left some in Westminster puzzled, and many Tories angry.

The decision is also in line with one of his long-held principles that an MP who voluntarily leaves their party should also resign their seat and leave parliament altogether. In 2011 Mr Skidmore introduced a Private Member’s Bill that would have required MPs to do just that.

“The constituents should have a voice, so actually it’s on a separate principle dating back 13 years that I’ve also gone and I’ve been consistent on that in the past,” he said.

Sunak faces uphill battle to keep hold of seats next month (PA)
Sunak faces uphill battle to keep hold of seats next month (PA)

Over the past 18 months, Mr Skidmore, who was commissioned by Liz Truss to review net zero policies in September, has become increasingly critical of the direction the government has taken.

He strongly criticised the PM’s speech rowing back on net zero commitments in September last year, describing it as “the greatest mistake of his premiership”.

The resigning MP said Mr Sunak’s rhetoric remained “a challenge”, saying: “We haven’t demonstrated that – when it comes to net zero – this is about being on the side of hard-working people. That’s the Tory mantra and this is about creating jobs, growth, opportunities.”

Mr Skidmore said he expects the environment to play a big role in the by-election, saying: “It was a Labour seat and I held it in spite of that and worked hard on issues of environmental concern about the countryside, the green belt, in order to win residents’ votes, and I earned those votes.

“I’m really sorry to the constituents who feel that a by-election is unnecessary. I think I’m giving them the power and the voice to be able to have their say over who they want to be their next representative, but it’s probably the toughest by-election fight that the Conservatives have faced so far.”

Since becoming PM, Mr Sunak has lost four seats in by-elections and only managed to retain Uxbridge and South Ruislip by 495 votes.