UK special election Double blow for Sunak as Labor swaps.com2Fb62Fc52Fb32745a9d3fb654886bb55b79a142F0854bcd2df19485eb5191a5c56f0622e

UK special election: Double blow for Sunak as Labor swaps two Conservative seats

LONDON (AP) — Embattled British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged voters and his troubled party to stick with him Friday after two English counties elected opposition party MPs to seats Sunak's Conservatives held for years.

The results will reinforce Conservative fears that the party is heading for defeat after 14 years in power when a national election is held in less than a year. In national opinion polls, the Tories consistently trail the left-leaning Labor Party by between 10 and 20 points.

Labor candidate Damien Egan won the House of Commons seat of Kingswood in southwest England, and Labour's General Kitchen captured Wellingborough in the center of the country, results announced on Friday showed. The Conservatives won both by large margins in the last national election in 2019, but saw a collapse in support in Thursday's special election.

Reform UK – formerly known as the Brexit Party – came third, leaving the Conservatives under pressure from both the right and the left.

Labor candidate Damien Egan delivers a speech after being declared MP for Kingswood at Thornbury Leisure Centre, Gloucestershire, on Friday, February 16, 2024, after being declared the winner of the Kingswood by-election.  (Ben Birchall//PA via AP)

Labor candidate Damien Egan delivers a speech after being declared MP for Kingswood at Thornbury Leisure Centre, Gloucestershire, on Friday, February 16, 2024, after being declared the winner of the Kingswood by-election. (Ben Birchall//PA via AP)

Labor leader Keir Starmer said the results “show people want change.”

But Sunak urged voters to “stick with our plan because it starts to deliver the change the country wants and needs.”

“Obviously we've been through a lot as a country in the last few years, but I really believe we're heading in the right direction at the start of this year,” he told reporters.

In 2024, over 50 countries will go to the polls

Thursday's election saw the replacement of an MP who resigned to protest Sunak's lack of commitment to green energy and another who was ousted over bullying and sexual misconduct.

The Conservatives have now lost ten by-elections since the last general election, more than any government since the 1960s. This includes six defeats – and one win – since Sunak took office in October 2022. He replaced Liz Truss, who rocked the economy with a plan for unfunded tax cuts and was in office for just seven weeks.

Sunak, the fifth Conservative leader since 2016, has restored some stability but has failed to revive the ruling party's popularity.

The Conservatives have been in power at the national level since 2010. Those years saw austerity in the wake of the world banking crisis, Britain's divisive decision to leave the European Union, a global pandemic and a European war that triggered the worst cost of living crisis in decades.

Polls show the Conservatives are losing support across the country, from wealthy voters in the south put off by Brexit to working-class voters in the north who switched from Labor for the 2019 election when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to bring prosperity to long-neglected areas.

Those promises remain largely unfulfilled, and Britain's economic growth has all but stalled as the country slips into recession at the end of 2023 for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This limits the government's scope to woo voters with tax cuts before the election.

Winning Kingswood candidate Egan said: “14 years of Conservative government have robbed our country of hope, with the feeling that no matter how hard you work you just can’t get ahead.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way — you know it, I know it, we all know it,” he said.

Conservative Party leader Richard Holden called the results “very disappointing”, although the party said the low turnout – less than 40% of eligible voters cast their ballot – was a sign that British voters were not enthusiastic about Labour be.

But polling expert John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde said the results confirmed the Conservatives were in “very, very significant electoral trouble”.

“The Conservatives need to break the historical record to get back to where they are,” he told the BBC.

Sunak must call an election this year, but the exact date is up to him.

The Conservatives' losses could embolden Sunak's many rivals in the fractious party who are already positioning themselves for the leadership contest that would likely follow an election defeat. Some want to oust Sunak even sooner and replace him with a hardliner who may win back voters from the reform that aims to curb migration, cut taxes and scrap green energy measures.

David Frost, former Conservative Brexit minister, wrote on “It’s late, but not too late.”

As well as struggling with a weakening economy, Sunak is trying to overcome a UK Supreme Court ban on his signature migration policy, a plan to send asylum seekers who reach Britain across the English Channel on a one-way trip to Rwanda . The plan was announced almost two years ago, but no flights have been launched due to political and legal opposition.

Sunak's only consolation is that Labor is also experiencing turmoil. Last week the party watered down a key green investment promise, saying the Conservatives had left the economy too weak to deliver on the commitment.

Starmer is also struggling to stamp out allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. This week, the party rejected its candidate for another special election after a newspaper published remarks he made during a local party meeting in which he claimed Israel had used Hamas's Oct. 7 attack as a pretext for invading Israel Gaza approved.

Critics say it is evidence that Labor has failed to stamp out anti-Semitism that festered under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of Palestinians and critic of Israel. It is unclear whether the controversy has hurt Labor in opinion polls.