What’s at stake in the Kingswood and Wellingborough by-elections?

Two more by-elections for Westminster to digest — and potentially more misery for the beleaguered prime minister, Rishi Sunak. 

This isn’t the first time Sunak has faced a brace of by-elections on the same day, of course. The PM lost two seats simultaneously twice last year: first in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome on July 20; and then in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire on October 19.

Next up, on February 15, it’s the turn of electors in Wellingborough and Kingswood to potentially inflict upon the PM a perilous double-routing. Indeed, for those who followed the downs and downs of Sunak’s by-election tumult through 2023, the stories of these latest contests harbour portentous parallels.  

Like the erstwhile stronghold of Selby and Ainsty, voters in Wellingborough have elected a Conservative MP at every election since 2005 — most recently returning Peter Bone to the House of Commons with a majority of 18,540 in 2019. Then there’s Kingswood, whose most recent MP, Chris Skidmore, had represented the constituency since 2010. The ex-net zero tsar chalked up an 11,220 majority over Labour in 2019. It is highly revealing of the Conservatives’ recent descent, therefore, that the Labour Party is odds on to win back both seats. 

In this way, it is worth treating the circumstances that gifted Britain this brace of by-elections in the first place; for Bone’s ouster and Skidmore’s departure are both deeply embedded in a broader narrative of Conservative political decline, albeit for sharply divergent reasons. 

Veteran Brexiteer Bone was forced out of the House of Commons after an inquiry upheld claims he “committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct” against a staff member. A consequent recall petition, circulated among Bone’s former constituents, received the signatories of 13.2 per cent of local voters — more than the 10 per cent threshold needed to trigger a by-election. 

Long Bone” now looms spectre-like in the Wellingborough by-election — and not merely on account of his unceremonious ouster. Filling Bone’s shoes as the Conservative candidate in Wellingborough is Helen Harrison, the ex-MP’s relatively new partner. At one point, it was rumoured that Bone could opt a run as an independent or even as the Reform UK candidate in the contest. But with his preferred successor in place, the ex-MP is once more door-knocking for the Conservatives. It has prompted accusations — which are strenuously denied — of a selection stitch-up. 

Wellingborough by-election: Conservative Party accused of ‘secret deal’ over candidate selection

Nonetheless, as a likely consequence of Harrison’s controversial candidature, Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) has approached the Wellingborough contest with a curiously light-touch. Sunak has also conspicuously refused to endorse his candidate in the constituency and ministers have been staying away.

In the end, with Harrison running a camera-shy, low-profile campaign, the Wellingborough by-election seems Labour’s to lose. 

Turning to Kingswood, Chris Skidmore resigned as a Conservative MP in January in protest over the government’s plans to mandate the issuing of new oil and gas licences. The former net-zero tsar and minister across a slew of Whitehall departments called the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill a “tragedy” for rowing back on key climate pledges. As a result, Skidmore has refused to endorse the Conservative candidate in his constituency, Sam Bromiley — a personal blow given Bromiley used to work in his office.

Arguably, therefore, it is little surprise that expectations now lean towards the Conservative Party losing both by-elections. It is also no secret that such a dire outcome would raise new questions about Sunak’s ability to revive the Conservatives’ fortunes in time for a general election expected this year.

Wellingborough by-election: Minister insists ‘all to play for’ in Peter Bone’s former seat

The big danger for Sunak is that two totemic defeats here could wash Keir Starmer’s woes off the frontpages and drive the political narrative all the way up to the Spring Budget on March 6 — a juncture when MPs will once more be looking to the government to turn the party’s fortunes around. 

Along these lines, two by-election triumphs in Wellingborough and Kingswood would serve as a welcome reprieve for the under-pressure Labour leader. In recent weeks, Starmer has faced a political crisis of escalating severity — with questions asked of his judgement over both the party’s £28 billion climate climbdown and its recent Rochdale debacle. 

At one point in time, the Labour leader would have hoped — perhaps even expected — to gain three more MPs by the end of February, with new representatives marching to parliament from Wellingborough, Kingswood and Rochdale. But after the party was forced to pull its support for its candidate in Rochdale, Azhar Ali, over his conspiracy-laden comments about Israel, Starmer would gladly settle for two. 

Another factor in both the Kingswood and Wellingborough races is the presence of Reform UK, with the restyled Brexit Party standing its deputy leader, Ben Habib, in the latter constituency. In 2015, the UK Independence Party came second in Wellingborough with 9,868 votes; therefore, with a pool of possible right-of-Conservative voters to woo, the so-called “insurgent” Reform UK will be under pressure to make a mark. Critical observers will be following the party’s prospects closely, given its consistent underperformance in recent by-elections relative to its opinion poll status and media conspicuousness.

After initially stating its intention to boycott the election in Kingswood, Reform UK is standing Rupert Lowe, a former Brexit Party MEP and ex-chairman of Southampton Football Club from 1996 to 2006 and then again from 2008 to 2009. Reform UK’s expectations are lower for the Kingswood contest compared to Wellingborough, but it will be another test of the party’s potential to act as a defining spoiler in Labour-Conservative contests come the general election. (In the recent Tamworth by-election, for instance, the difference between the Labour and Conservative candidates [1,316] was smaller than Reform UK’s total vote [1,376]). 

On top of this, it is worth reflecting that whoever is elected to serve as the MP for Kingswood tomorrow will only have a job for mere months. That’s because the constituency is being abolished at the next general election, with the area that currently comprises Kingswood set to be split four ways into new seats. This fact, which has seen ex-MP Skidmore criticised for triggering a costly by-election, means his successor is destined for lame duck status in the commons.

Nonetheless, the Kingswood by-election could serve as an important touchstone for Labour’s hopes to challenge the Conservatives in the south-west of England. Indeed, for candidate Dan Egan — whose slippery accent has drawn Conservative criticism — the race is essentially a trail run for his general election contest in Bristol North East. A victory in Kingswood would confer upon Egan not only months of parliamentary experience, but other advantages associated with incumbency during a general election — including a record to run off and a network of local voters and campaigners. 

A by-election defeat for the Conservatives in Kingswood could also potentially sound a death knell for the career of Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg. The southern part of the carved-up Kingswood will go into a new North East Somerset and Hanham seat — which replaces Rees-Mogg’s current constituency. One consequence of a dire result for the Conservatives in Kingswood, therefore, could be that Rees-Mogg doubles down on his GB News presenting duties. 

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

If Sunak does, as expectations suggest, lose both the Kingswood and Wellingborough seats to Labour, Keir Starmer’s spin machine will be working overtime in a bid to tie the PM’s popularity (or lack thereof) directly to the results. The party will also argue the triumphs vindicate Labour’s political strategy — amid growing consternation in some corners — with an election perhaps only months away. 

Starmerism is a creed that has defined itself on its ability to win. So, after securing victories in recent by-elections in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Selby, Tamworth and Mid Beds, the Labour leader will want to prove to his party that he is advancing on all fronts of the UK’s diverse electoral geography. Sunak, conversely, would seek to tie his party’s poor performance to each contest’s idiosyncrasies — be that “long Bone” in Wellingborough or a lack of voter enthusiasm in the soon-to-be carved-up Kingswood 

By-elections: Starmer says Labour ‘redrawing the political map’ as it takes Tamworth and Mid Beds from Conservatives

However, if the Conservative Party holds onto even one of these seats, the pro-Sunak spin will insist he is, after all, moving the dial among the electorate in scenes that would mirror the merriment after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. The Conservative Party would consequently amp up the pressure on Starmer at this particular moment of vulnerability for the Labour leader. 

Still, the big risk for Sunak is that two by-election defeats in Kingswood and Wellingborough will strengthen the feeling of fin de régime that presently envelops his government. One possible outcome of two Conservative losses on Friday morning, therefore, will be that the likelihood of a late election — perhaps in the winter of 2024 — increases.

In the end, although the consensus in Westminster suggests this is a bad week for Keir Starmer, voters in Wellingborough and Kingswood might have other ideas. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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