By-elections offer slim hope for Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak avoided a triple by-election defeat, but lost two safe Tory seats. Credit: PA

It would be wrong to say that it was anything but a terrible night for Rishi Sunak and the Tories, with the massive swings against it in Selby and in Somerton.

But the retention of Uxbridge and South Ruislip shows how much work Sir Keir Starmer still has to do to be confident of winning the general election, and why the prime minister will believe there remains a path to victory - or at least to avoid humiliation - for him.

The important background is that only a few days ago Labour thought Uxbridge was in the bag, while Selby was a less certain victory.

The party miscalculated, or rather put too little weight on how disillusionment with the Tories could be trumped by a specific issue of material, economic importance to voters.

To put it another way, cash-strapped Uxbridge voters decided it was more important to use the by-election to protest against the Labour London mayor’s extension of the ULEZ - the capital’s charging zone for vehicles - than to signal disillusionment with an unpopular government. In Uxbridge, a single economic issue - during a cost-of-living crunch - trumped the more general national mood that it is time to get the Tories out. The implications for the general election are significant.

Starmer seems still some way from creating the excitement about Labour that would trump local issues like the Ulez. He needs to do more to give voters a powerful reason to vote FOR Labour rather then just AGAINST the Tories.

Second, for Sunak, it reinforces his conviction that if only he could persuade voters they would be financially better off sticking with the Tories, the gap with Labour would narrow.

His obsession with helping to force inflation below pay rises is the correct political obsession, though it requires voters to see any modest recovery in living standards as sustainable under him and at risk under Labour.

Third, it was a terrible night for anyone who thinks tackling climate change is THE SINGLE PRIORITY.

Uxbridge voters said they cared more about the pounds in their pockets today than global warming.

Fourth, the Lib Dems are definitively and importantly back as the important third force in English politics, and are rampant in the West Country again.

Fifth, Boris Johnson may this morning be feeling a twinge of regret that he did not fight the Uxbridge by-election as a platform for his rehabilitation, rather than stomping off in a huff that MPs punished him for lying to them.

Uxbridge, it turns out, even with its slimmer Tory majority than Selby, was winnable. After a recount.

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