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Rishi Sunak insists ‘our plan is working’ after double by-election defeat

Rishi Sunak has insisted his plan for the country “is working” despite losing two safe seats to Labour in a double by-election blow.

The prime minister blamed the losses of Kingswood and Wellingborough on the “challenging circumstances” that led to the votes being held – with one MP ousted following claims of bullying and the other resigning in protest over green policies.

By-election results live: Labour secures double victory

Labour said the outcome shows “people want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party to deliver it”.

But Mr Sunak played down the importance of the results for predicting what will happen at the general election.

He told reporters: “Midterm elections are always difficult for incumbent governments, and the circumstances of these elections were of course particularly challenging.”

Asked if he was more concerned about Reform UK’s results, which were the best for the party in a by-election so far, the prime minister said: “A vote for anyone who isn’t the Conservative candidate, whether that’s Reform or anyone else, is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in power.

“That’s the actual choice at the general election, between me and him, between the Conservatives and Labour.

“Now I believe our plan is working.”

Labour overturned significant majorities in the two constituencies, meaning this government has seen the most by-election losses of any Conservative administration since the Second World War.

The Wellingborough vote was called after Peter Bone was recalled by his constituents following claims of bullying and sexually inappropriate behaviour, which he denies.

Labour‘s Gen Kitchen overturned a majority of more than 18,000 to win the seat from the Tories, with a swing of 28.5% – the second highest of all time.

The Kingswood vote was held after Chris Skidmore resigned as an MP over Mr Sunak’s green policies. Labour’s Damien Egan overturned a majority of more than 11,000 there.

These two losses mark the ninth and 10th by-election defeats for the government since the 2019 general election.

Taking into account its win at the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, this government has now lost a net of nine seats, overshadowing the 1992 to 1997 administration of Sir John Major which lost eight.

The Labour administration of 1966 to 1970 did perform even worse, however; they lost 15 seats in four years.

Labour Party candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates with Labour MP for Chesterfield Toby Perkins after being declared winner in the Wellingborough by-election at the Kettering Leisure Village, Northamptonshire.
Image: Gen Kitchen took the Wellingborough seat. Pic: PA
Damien Egan speaks alongside Labour Party National Campaign Co-ordinator Pat McFadden.
Pic: Reuters
Image: Damien Egan speaks alongside Labour Party National Campaign Co-ordinator Pat McFadden.
Pic: Reuters

Sir Keir said the the results show voters “are being clear with the government that they want change”.

“They think that the Tories have failed. They can see that most things are broken. They look at the Labour Party and see a changed party… so I’m very pleased with both of those results,” he said.

However, he stressed there was “more to do” ahead of the general election, expected later this year.

“As every football fan knows, you don’t win the league by a good result in February. So we’ve got to fight like we’re five points behind in the polls,” he said.

The by-elections follow a challenging few weeks for the Labour leader, having scaled back his party’s green investment plan and been embroiled in an antisemitism crisis.

Sky political analyst professor Michael Thrasher pointed out that, due to the secret ballots used in the UK, you cannot know if voters have swapped between parties “unless you stop people as they come out of the polling station and ask”.

However, Sir Keir, speaking earlier this morning, insisted his party was “clearly getting Tory switches”, adding that in Wellingborough, more people voted for Labour yesterday than in the 2019 general election despite the low turnout.

“That’s not possible unless people come over to us,” he told BBC Breakfast.

Tory MPs have sought to blame low turnout and the local circumstances on the results, while conceding they are “disappointing”.

The twin blows will compound the prime minister’s woes, coming the day after it was officially announced that the UK had entered a recession at the end of 2023.

Both contests were seen largely as two-horse races between Labour and the Tories, though the Conservatives also faced the threat of strengthening support for Reform UK among disgruntled voters on the right.

Reform UK – the successor of the Brexit Party – took home more than 10% of the votes in both seats.

It had not previously polled more than 10% at a by-election.

Deputy leader Ben Habib, who won 13% of the vote in the heavily pro-Leave constituency of Wellingborough.

He told Sky News the result was “remarkable”, adding: “People are absolutely fed up with the manner in which this country is being governed.”

Reform has been clear it is gunning for the Conservative Party, and has pledged to stand a candidate in every seat in Britain.

However Tory Party chairman Richard Holden played down its threat, telling Sky News that UKIP back in 2010 was getting “50% of the vote in some cases”.

Next up for the parties is the Rochdale by-election in two weeks – although Labour has abandoned its candidate following an antisemitism row.

Sky News Source