How Rishi Sunak could emerge from three by-elections stronger than ever

The former prime minister leaving Downing Street in July 2022. Credit: PA

By Political Correspondent Harry Horton

Of the three by-elections triggered over the weekend, the suburban seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip has the smallest majority - making it the easiest target for opposition parties.

The London constituency was on Labour’s list long before Boris Johnson dramatically resigned as an MP on Friday over the findings of an investigation into Downing Street lockdown parties. With the Conservative Party still struggling in the polls and having only just emerged from a brutal set of local election results, the opposition may well feel quietly confident about overturning a 7,210 majority in the former prime minister's constituency.

Speaking on Monday, Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “There are a whole range of seats in different circumstances around the country but this is one that we’re seeking to win.” By-elections are often seen as a referendum on the government of the day. But sometimes local issues dominate conversations on the doorstep. Campaigning in Uxbridge on Saturday, one topic kept spontaneously coming up - Ulez, London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is expanding Ulez to include the entire capital by the end of August.

People who drive in the zone in a non-compliant vehicle will need to pay a daily charge of £12.50. Supporters of the scheme say it will help clean up the air in some of the most polluted parts of London. Several Conservative-led councils have launched legal action against the expanded scheme and protests have popped up in areas soon to be included. In short, it’s left some voters feeling very angry.

I asked Labour’s candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Danny Beales, what he made of the scheme. He acknowledged the financial concerns among some residents but wouldn’t criticise the scheme's expansion, insisting "we all want cleaner air".

'We all need to take polluting cars off the road', argues Labour's candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip

If the Conservatives pick an anti-Ulez candidate (which they are almost certain to), it’s not inconceivable that this by-election could start to be seen as a referendum on Ulez, which is much trickier territory for Labour. Picture this scenario: the mid-Bedfordshire and Selby and Ainsty by-elections are more comfortable ground for the Conservatives. Both seats enjoy health 20,000+ majorities. If Rishi Sunak can keep those constituencies blue - and cling on in Boris Johnson’s former seat - then he will head into autumn with renewed confidence he can turn things around for his party ahead of a general election. Should Keir Starmer fail to win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, he will likely face questions about whether he’s got what it takes to lead Labour to a general election victory. But a win for Labour in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and any significant indent by either Labour or the Lib Dems in the other two by-elections, will leave the prime minister under yet more pressure. And extend the gloomy mood already prevalent among many Tory MPs.

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