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UK's ruling Conservatives suffer two damaging by-election losses

LONDON – Britain's ruling Conservative Party suffered two damaging by-election defeats to Labour on Friday, boding ill for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his party's chances at the next general election.

The elections were in traditionally safe Tory seats, but Labour managed to overturn huge majorities in both on a notable evening for the opposition party.

Labour had played down its prospects in the “super safe” seats of Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire in central England, but its candidates Sarah Edwards and Alistair Strathern will now take their places in the House of Commons, where the Tories still hold a large overall majority.

However, the Conservatives’ prospects of winning another term at the next election, due before January 2025, are looking bleak after the latest blows, with voters taking out their frustrations over an ongoing cost-of-living crisis and a series of scandals.

Edwards, who overturned a majority of 20,000 to win in Tamworth, said voters had sent a message that “they have had enough of this failed government that has crashed the economy and destroyed public services”.

The Tamworth poll was triggered when Chris Pincher, who had the seat since 2010, quit after being found to have groped two men in an “egregious case of sexual misconduct”.

Then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the case led to a raft of ministerial resignations that spelt the beginning of the end of his premiership.

The Mid Bedfordshire poll was called when former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a loyalist to Johnson who blames Sunak for his political downfall, quit her seat. She accused the new prime minister of having abandoned “the fundamental principles of conservatism”.

She had won the seat, which the Tories have held since 1931, by a thumping 24,664 votes in 2019, but Labour candidate Strathern overturned that deficit to win by 1,192 votes on Friday.

Strathern said the result proved that “nowhere is off limits for this Labour Party”.

– Policy shifts –

As well as the two safe seats lost on Friday, the Tories saw a 20,000 majority overturned in a July by-election on a 21 percent swing. Labour have also been leading national polls by more than 10 points for over a year.

Sunak has recently made a number of policy shifts, including cancelling part of a costly high-speed rail link and delaying measures aimed at helping the UK achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Despite the shifts, his party has seen little improvement in the polls and Sunak’s press secretary warned ahead of voting on Thursday that “mid-term by-elections are extremely tough for incumbent governments”, setting expectations for a tough night.

Labour, meanwhile, said that neither seat had been on “our target list for the general election”.

“If we were to win Tamworth and had that swing at a general election, it would mean that the Tories will be down to fewer than 60 seats at the next general election,” said a spokesman.

The Tories currently have more than 350 MPs in the House of Commons.

Sunak was not in the country when the results arrived, having travelled to the Middle East for a visit in the wake of the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

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