Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives have narrowly held on to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in an unexpected UK parliamentary by-election result but were poised to lose two other seats in a night of political drama.
Sunak’s ruling party retained the London seat vacated by former premier Boris Johnson by fewer than 500 votes, but the result, which came at just before 3am, removed the threat of a “3-0” by-election debacle for the prime minister.
Within minutes, however, the Conservatives lost the South West seat of Somerton and Frome to the centrist Liberal Democrats, who turned a Tory majority of almost 20,000 into a Lib Dem majority of more than 10,000.
The Tory victory in Uxbridge was attributed to concern over a planned extension of the “ultra low emissions zone”, a charge on dirty vehicles, to outer London boroughs planned by the capital’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan.
Steve Tuckwell, the winning Tory candidate, said: “Sadiq Khan has lost Labour this election, and we know that it was his damaging and costly ULEZ policy which lost them this election.”
The Conservatives polled 13,965 against the opposition Labour party’s 13,470, a Tory majority of 495. The result will be a huge relief to Sunak, who had been braced to lose three parliamentary by-elections in a single day in what would have been a major blow for his ruling Conservatives.
Sunak’s party is trailing the opposition Labour party by 20 points in opinion polls, and is dogged by high inflation, failing public services and the recent chaos of the Johnson and Liz Truss premierships.
Few expected the Tories to hold Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The contest was triggered by the resignation of Johnson after he was found to have lied to MPs over parties held in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Labour, which hopes to return to power at next year’s election, was upbeat about gaining the Yorkshire seat of Selby and Ainsty from the Tories, who won it in 2019 by a margin of 20,137.
The Lib Dem victory on Friday morning in Somerton and Frome gave Sir Ed Davey’s party a vital foothold in the Tory heartlands of the English west country.
In that Somerset seat the Lib Dems’ Sarah Dyke won 21,187 votes, easily beating the Conservatives’ 10,179. The previous Tory MP David Warburton had been forced to quit in a drugs scandal.
A trio of defeats in the by-elections would have been the first such humiliation for a British prime minister since 1968 when Labour’s Harold Wilson lost three contests on a single day.
Despite the narrow Uxbridge victory, which came after a recount, some Conservative MPs believe that defeats in Selby and Somerset would be a portent of a calamitous general election defeat next year.
Sunak insists he can still turn things around and secure a fifth consecutive election win, stopping Labour from gaining power for the first time since Gordon Brown was ejected from No 10 Downing Street in 2010.
In a message to Tory MPs on Wednesday night, the prime minister attempted to raise his party’s morale, pointing to this week’s sharp fall in inflation as a sign that a tide of bad economic news may be turning.
Jonathan Gullis, a Tory MP, said: “He was asking all of us to unite behind him when we come back in the autumn. We need to be one team. A united party wins, a divided party loses.”
Uxbridge is the kind of suburban seat the Conservatives need to hold on to if they are to retain their grip on power, but Selby is usually regarded as a rock-solid rural Tory stronghold.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats see victory in Somerton and Frome as a sign that they are making a comeback in the west country, which is overwhelmingly represented by Tory MPs.
Sunak has vowed to stage an autumn comeback, offering a new “long-term vision” for the country. An autumn financial statement and the King’s Speech legislative package will be crucial moments for the prime minister.