Sunak Faces Electoral Tests That Risk Encouraging Tory Plotters

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak faces a double electoral test on Thursday that could trigger further division in his Conservative Party and undermine his bid to stop the Labour Party from taking power in a UK-wide vote expected in the fall.

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Losing either of the special elections in Wellingborough, central England, and Kingswood outside the southwest city of Bristol, would be a major setback for Sunak given the Tories are defending a significant majority in both. Labour leader Keir Starmer would likely present a victory as proof his poll-leading party still has momentum after a bruising series of political U-turns.

While the swings needed to take both seats are within Labour’s grasp given its recent performance in district elections, the lack of local-level polling and the unpredictability of such votes means Starmer cannot bank on a double win.

Still, much of the political focus will be on the Reform UK party and its ability to siphon off support from the Conservatives. That is the nightmare scenario for many Tory Members of Parliament, who fear a split in the right-wing vote will facilitate a landslide Labour victory if repeated nationwide.

It’s why Sunak’s internal opponents have said a strong Reform UK showing would be the next flashpoint in their campaign to oust him before the nationwide vote.

Reform UK, the anti-immigration party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, is polling at 12% nationally according to YouGov, a level it has yet to replicate in by-elections on local council elections. Still, the party has committed significant resources especially to the campaign in Wellingborough.

The Conservatives held Wellingborough with a majority of over 18,000 in the 2019 election and Kingswood with more than 11,000 votes — well within the reach of Labour’s recent by-election showings. The opposition party has a poll lead of about 20 percentage points in national surveys.

“The Conservatives will be bracing themselves to lose both Kingswood and Wellingborough,” said James Crouch, head of policy and public affairs at polling company Opinium. “There has been very little movement in the national polls since the last major by-election upset for the government.”

Losing one or both elections on Thursday would mean the government has accrued more by-election defeats in a single term of office than any government since the 1960s, according to the Press Association. The Tories have so far lost eight by-elections since the 2019 general election.

The two elections were triggered by very different circumstances. Voters in Wellingborough ousted veteran Conservative MP Peter Bone after he was suspended from the House of Commons for bullying and sexual misconduct, which he denies. In a further twist, Bone’s partner Helen Harrison became the Tory candidate in the seat, which has been in Conservative hands since 2005.

Wellingborough is seen as safe Tory country; it’s one of Northamptonshire’s seven parliamentary districts, all of which voted for Conservative MPs in 2019 including ministers Andrea Leadsom and Chris Heaton-Harris. Labour would need a 17.9 percentage point swing, less than it achieved at by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire, Tamworth and Selby and Ainsty last year.

Labour’s candidate is Gen Kitchen, a former councilor who grew up in the area. Reform UK is fielding its co-deputy leader Ben Habib, who is also chief executive officer at First Property Group.

A strong performance by Reform UK could spark panic in Sunak’s top team and ultimately force the governing party to move further right — on tax cuts and cultural issues — as it seeks to neutralize the threat.

The Kingswood seat was vacated when former energy minister Chris Skidmore quit in protest over Sunak’s watering-down of the UK’s climate policy. He had been MP since 2010, though the district traditionally moved between Labour and the Conservatives since it was created in 1974. His decision to quit mid-term, rather than waiting for the general election, was controversial because the seat is set to be abolished under boundary changes to reflect shifting demographics.

That means whoever wins faces a short spell as an MP unless they find another constituency next time round. Damien Egan, a former mayor of Lewisham in southeast London who grew up in the area, is Labour’s candidate. He would need an 11.4 percentage point swing to win the seat.

People familiar with the matter said Labour views the contest as a precursor to making a strong push to oust prominent Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg from the neighboring North East Somerset seat at the general election.

Sam Bromiley, who also grew up in Kingswood, is standing for the Tories. Reform UK initially said it would boycott the vote in protest at Skidmore triggering the contest just months before the seat disappears at the general election, but later put up businessman Rupert Lowe as its candidate.

Read more: Tory Plotters Look to Farage’s Reform UK to Speed Sunak’s Ouster

Losing both Wellingborough and Kingswood would cast further doubt on Sunak’s ability to win a general election, according to Joe Twyman, co-founder and director of public opinion consultancy Deltapoll.

“Politics is so often about momentum,” he said. “A 2-0 loss to the Tories hands even more momentum to Labour and emboldens critics of Rishi Sunak who will demand more and more of him ahead of the election.”

Even so, Labour has not enjoyed an ideal buildup to the vote. A U-turn on Starmer’s flagship green spending pledge has angered those in the party who want Labour to lead the fight against climate change.

Meanwhile in Rochdale, where a special election is due to be held on Feb. 29 following the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd, antisemitic remarks by Labour’s candidate Azhar Ali led the party to withdraw its support.

That effectively means Labour will lose a seat it’s held since 2005, while the furor has underscored the tensions in Starmer’s party over the Israel-Gaza war and his struggle to distance his leadership from the era of Jeremy Corbyn that was dogged by accusations of antisemitism.

Still, the immediate pressure will be on Sunak if he loses two seats this week.

The “internal division resulting from the fear of losing is likely to further drag down the Conservative vote,” said Crouch. “That may prove to be the real impact of these by-elections.”

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