Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

How bad will Rishi Sunak’s by-election trauma be?

A crunch week for the prime minister could result in three by-election losses in a development that would cap off a sorry few months for Rishi Sunak and his Conservative party. It comes as voters head to the polls in three key constituencies on Thursday — the same day MPs will wave goodbye to their parliamentary offices for the summer as the House rises for recess.

Voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome have all been represented by Conservative MPs since at least 2015, but with the ruling party still languishing in the polls, the House could be about to welcome three new opposition MPs. 

Uxbridge and South Ruislip was, of course, once represented by Boris Johnson, before the former PM resigned from parliament seat after he was handed a report from the privileges committee which found he had lied to MPs about “partygate”.

Nigel Adams, MP for Selby and Ainsty, was a close ally of Johnson and announced he would be stepping down a day later. His move came amid controversy over Mr Johnson’s resignation honours list, on which Adams did not to his surprise appear.

In April 2022, MP for Somerton and Frome David Warbuton was suspended from the Conservative party pending an outcome of an investigation into allegations of harassment and drug use. At the start of June 2023 he announced his resignation as an MP because he felt he was not given a fair hearing over the allegations, which he denies.

Expectations now lean towards the Conservative party losing all three contests. It means Rishi Sunak could become the first PM since Harold Wilson in 1968 to lose three seats at by-elections on the same day.

Such a poor performance by the Conservatives would in turn raise new questions about the PM’s ability to revive his party’s political fortunes in time for a general election expected next year. Still, it is no coincidence that the by-elections are timed for the day summer recess begins — meaning anti-Sunak chatter might be confined to WhatsApp groups rather than the members’ tea room. 

But it is also a crunch week for Sir Keir Starmer, who will want to prove Labour can act on its long-held double-digit lead over the Conservatives and win in historically unlikely areas. 

Uxbridge and South Ruislip

In Uxbridge particularly, a Labour win in Johnson’s former seat would hand Starmer a major symbolic victory in his bid to march his party back into power.

Ostensibly, Uxbridge and South Ruislip looks to be a pretty straightforward Labour gain — the Conservative majority in the constituency, at just over 7,000, is by far the smallest of the three seats up for grabs.

But, as ever, by-elections develop their own character and the salience of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s contentious Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion has made the Conservatives believe they might still have a chance.

ULEZ, an area where a tax is imposed on cars which don’t meet certain emissions standards, is being extended by the London mayor to cover the area in August. And, unlike much of London, Uxbridge is a constituency of car drivers — with around four in five households owning a car and one in three having two or more.

Labour candidate Danny Beales, who appears acutely aware of the salience of ULEZ in the constituency, has said he has heard “heart-wrenching stories” from those who would not be able to afford to upgrade their cars or pay the £12.50-a-day charge when the ULEZ is extended to Uxbridge.

Speaking at a debate at the start of July, Beales said: “It’s not the right time to extend the Ulez scheme to outer London, it’s just not”.

Khan has also been a conspicuous absentee among Beales’ door-knocking apparatchiks, even though he will be seeking re-election himself soon.

Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell has said the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election on July 20 will be “a referendum” on Khan’s ULEZ.

However, not every Conservative is feeling so optimistic. Senior MP Steve Brine, the Conservative chair of the health and social care select committee, said “long Boris” is to blame for the Conservatives’ expected woes at this week’s by-elections. 

Asked by BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour whether he expected his party to lose in Uxbridge, Brine replied: “Yeah — it’s another bit of what I call ‘long Boris’, isn’t it?”

Uxbridge has of course been a “sticky” constituency for some time. In 2019, Boris Johnson was defending the smallest majority of any prime minister since 1924, just over 5,000 votes. But, despite opposition campaigners’ best efforts, he increased his majority to 7,000. 

In all, it would take a swing of seven points from Conservatives to Labour for Sir Keir Starmer’s party to win the constituency. Given Labour needs a 12-point national swing for a parliamentary majority at a general election, losing here would be interpreted as a political setback for the party — in spite of the race’s idiosyncrasies.

Somerton and Frome

Somerton and Frome is a very different type of Conservative-voting constituency to Uxbridge and Ruislip. A rural seat in Somerset, it was in the hands of the Liberal Democrats until 2015. Since then, however, it has become a relatively safe Conservative seat, with ex-MP David Warburton winning 56 per cent of the vote, a majority of almost 30 per cent, at the 2019 election. 

It is a key Liberal Democrat target this time around and, coming after the area’s most local council elections, which returned 10 Liberal Democrat councillors out of 13 wards, Sir Ed Davey’s party will be feeling confident. In the 2022 local elections, the Lib Dems took 40 per cent of the vote as the Conservatives won just one councillor. 

Certainly, with Labour the favourites in Thursday’s other electoral bouts, the Lib Dems will be looking to build on a series of by-election victories since 2021, when it has overturned big Conservative majorities in Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire, and Tiverton and Honiton.

Selby and ainsty

Elsewhere on Thursday, a record-breaking result could see the Conservatives routed again. 

Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire, a mix of rural villages and towns, has been a Conservative heartland since its creation in 2010. The seat’s former MP Nigel Adams received 20,137 votes in 2019 (60 per cent), while Labour garnered 13,858 (just under 25).

Labour’s win would therefore make electoral history. The highest majority the party has overturned at a by-election is 14,654 votes in Mid-Staffordshire more than 30 years ago.

The 18-point swing required for victory would also far outstrip Labour’s by-election performances this parliament.

The latest council elections in 2022 also provide Labour with hope, when the party finished just six points behind the Conservatives despite managing to win only four of the 15 wards within the constituency.

How bad will the trauma be?

In Westminster, it is now widely expected that the Conservatives are on track for three by-election defeats. 

But this means that if Rishi Sunak’s party retains even one of the three up-for-grab  seats, the prime minister might be able to spin the results positively. 

For Keir Starmer, on the other hand, a victory in Uxbridge and Selby would vindicate his political and electoral strategy amid growing consternation within his own party about Labour’s policy trajectory. 

A victory in Uxbridge, in spite of the party’s ULEZ woes, would be deeply symbolic and, in some senses, mark a final political triumph for Sir Keir over his political nemesis Boris Johnson.

And success in Selby, which is the Conservatives’ 249th most vulnerable seat, would appear to place Labour firmly on track for a majority at the next election. 

Conservative MPs, who might otherwise have considered themselves safe, will begin to question their long term political prospects. The consequences for Sunak, as his backbenchers apply pressure for the PM to turn the ship around, could be grave.