Rishi Sunak standing delivering a speech at the Downing Street press room.
Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Sunak told Tamworth and Mid Beds results expose ‘serious mistake’ of net zero pivot

The Conservative Party lost the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections with swings to Labour of 20.5 percentage points and 23.9 points respectively in a historically bad night for the government. 

In the aftermath, the losses of Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire are now being compared to British politics’ last slate of by-elections, namely in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Somerton and Frome and Selby and Ainsty. 

These by-elections, held in July, saw the Conservative party retain Uxbridge. But the government lost Selby and Ainsty to Labour, and Somerton and Frome to the Liberal Democrats.

The small margin of victory for the Conservatives in Uxbridge was attributed to local campaigning against the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). Subsequently, the government has been seen to exploit other “green” issues in a bid to trigger a broader rallying in the polls. 

But, after last night’s results in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, the prime minister has been told the watering down of net zero targets after the Uxbridge by-election “was a serious mistake”.

Gavin Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “These by-election results are as bad as Selby and Somerton back in July (Tamworth is the second highest swing Labour have ever achieved to gain a seat from the Conservatives). They show Sunak’s net zero pivot and conference speech have had no impact on his party’s prospects.

He added: “Back in July, everyone focused on Uxbridge. Conclusions were drawn even though it was clear at the time it was down to a *local* issue and Selby and Somerton were more likely to represent the national mood. Tamworth and Mid Beds confirm that was a serious mistake”.

In July, despite a 6.7 per cent swing to Labour, the Conservatives held Uxbridge and South Ruislip, winning the seat by just 495 votes.

Speaking after victory, which coincided with historic losses in Selby and Somerton, Sunak said the result showed the next general election was not a “done deal”.

Speculation followed that the Conservative Party would seek to further exploit green issues, such as ULEZ and the government’s net zero targets, as a wedge issue. And in September, Sunak outlined that the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be moved back five years to 2035 and that the transition to heat pumps has also been delayed. 

The prime minister said at the time: “I’m confident that we can adopt a more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to meeting that zero that eases the burdens on working people”.

Speaking before the announcement, former Conservative energy minister Chris Skidmore told BBC Newsnight that the changes could “potentially be the greatest mistake of his premiership”.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.