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21 July 2023

The Tories can take little consolation from their Uxbridge victory

For Rishi Sunak, the national picture remains unremittingly grim.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Tories lost two of yesterday’s three by-elections but defied national polling to retain Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It had long been forecast that Rishi Sunak would become the first prime minister to lose three seats on the same day since Harold Wilson in 1968. But Sadiq Khan’s expansion to outer London of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), a charge on the most polluting vehicles, dominated the campaign and, in spite of a 6.7 per cent swing to Labour, the party was defeated by 495 votes.

But Sunak will take little comfort from the Tories defying expectations here. Labour overturned a Conservative majority of 20,137 to win Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire, with the Commons gaining a new “baby of the House” in Keir Mather, 25. This is the largest numerical majority Labour has ever reversed in a by-election. Meanwhile, in Somerton and Frome in the West Country, the Liberal Democrats wiped out a Tory majority of 19,213 as their remarkable revival continued. 

While buoyed by its success in Selby, Labour will be intensely disappointed not to have won Uxbridge. As the New Statesman reported this month, there were early signs the Labour campaign was in trouble there. Khan, the mayor of London, was kept away from the constituency, where many people rely on their car for work, and Danny Beales, Labour’s Uxbridge candidate, sought to distance himself from Ulez, calling for the expansion of the £12.50-a-day charge to the area to be delayed until after the cost-of-living crisis had subsided. The Tories’ candidate, Steve Tuckwell, whose allegiance to the governing party was largely kept off leaflets, succeeded in turning the race into a single-issue campaign.

Although Labour has never held Uxbridge before, its dominance of London has grown in recent years, with the party winning typically Conservative councils such as Wandsworth and Westminster for the first time in last year’s local elections. But the broader national picture remains unremittingly grim for the Tories. As the pollster John Curtice observed this morning, with an average drop in support for the Conservatives of 20 percentage points, “these three by-elections are consistent with the depressing message of the opinion polls that the Tories are a long way behind”.

Ed Davey’s Lib Dems are now buoyant about their chance of retaking many seats in their former West Country stronghold. The Conservatives are dismayed by their defeat in Selby, a seat that had been Tory since its creation in 2010. For now, the seismic shift in public opinion since the 2019 general election endures.

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[See also: Triple by-election bonanza – as it happened]

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