July’s by-elections: a crucial moment for Sunak and Starmer alike

Ben Farmer

Account Manager

Next Thursday (20th July) marks the date of three crucially-important by-elections in three currently Conservative constituencies. It is already being described as a day of judgement for Rishi Sunak’s government and Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour.

Voters will be heading to the polls in Somerton and Frome, Selby and Ainsty, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip following the resignations of David Warburton, Nigel Adams, and Boris Johnson, respectively.

Many Conservative MPs and party officials are said to be pessimistic about the party’s chances in what has been dubbed ‘Super Thursday’. While even three losses are unlikely to trigger an immediate change in leadership, a bad performance could have profound consequences for Rishi Sunak at a time when his administration is already weighed down by inflation and the cost of living. He will be particularly worried about losing in Selby and Ainsty, where the Conservatives won in 2019 with a 20,137 majority; a Labour win here would be especially wounding for the PM.

Meanwhile Labour is hopeful it can win in Uxbridge and has high hopes for Selby. The Party has fought hard, with party staff from across the country seconded to the campaigns and plenty of Shadow Ministers turning up for on-the-ground campaigning. A good performance will add to the momentum around Labour and lead to more calls for a general election to take place sooner rather than later.

Selby and Ainsty – Current Conservative majority: 20,137

The Labour Party is the clear opposition to the Conservatives in the race for this North Yorkshire seat. The by-election was caused by the resignation of Nigel Adams, who stepped down a day after his close ally Boris Johnson after the peerage he was expecting in Johnson’s resignation honours list was blocked by the House of Lords Appointment Commission.

Labour, which has a 12-point lead in recent polling by 38 Degrees, is represented by Keir Mather, a former employee of the CBI, while the Conservative candidate is Claire Holmes, a lawyer. At just 25 years old, Keir Mather would displace Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome as ‘Baby of the House’ if elected. Whatever the result, the circumstances of Adams’ resignation serve as an uncomfortable reminder to the PM that the scandals of the Johnson era are still rumbling on.

Somerton and Frome – Current Conservative majority: 19,213

Somerton and Frome was one of many seats in the Liberal Democrats’ ‘yellow wall’ in the south-west of England throughout the 2000s. But it saw the biggest swing to the Conservatives in the 2015 election and has been held comfortably by the Party ever since. However, recent by-election wins in Tiverton and Honiton, North Shropshire, and Chesham and Amersham, mean that top Lib Dems are quietly confident that the seat can be regained. The Party’s chances certainly are not hurt by the fact that David Warburton’s resignation came after he was accused of unwanted sexual advances towards two women, and he admitted to taking cocaine.

The Liberal Democrats have fielded Sarah Dyke, a South Somerset councillor, while the Conservative candidate is Faye Purbrick, another local councillor. Labour who, like the Liberal Democrats, firmly rejected a Lib-Lab pact in all three by-elections, are standing Neil Guld, who works for union Unison. Overturning such a large majority will be a tall order for the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives’ chances should not be discounted, but if this seat does change hands, then many top Conservatives in demographically similar seats will be questioning their own electoral hopes at the next election.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip – Current Conservative majority: 7,210

Despite Sunak’s desperate attempts to move on from the drama of the Johnson premiership, his predecessor continues to haunt him from beyond the political grave. Johnson’s resignation, which comes almost exactly a year after he left Downing Street, followed the investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee, which he called a ‘witch hunt’.

Labour heavily targeted the seat in 2017 and 2019, but to no avail. However, with the by-election happening at such a tumultuous time for the government, the Party is confident things will be different this time. Labour’s candidate is Danny Beales, a Camden councillor who joined the Party in his youth out of frustration with his family’s financial situation. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have fielded Steve Tuckwell, a South Ruislip councillor. This is the most high profile by-election, and it features a range of other candidates, including Reclaim’s Laurence Fox, activist Piers Corbyn, and the ever-present Count Binface.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) to the whole of London by August 2023 has been the major local issue, with the Conservatives focussing their entire campaign on the issue. Labour’s Danny Beales has responded saying he does not support expansion of the scheme until the scrappage scheme for vehicles is expanded. Meanwhile several anti-ULEZ candidates are running their own campaign on the issue. The result in Uxbridge will therefore be of interest both for Labour nationally, and for Sadiq Khan’s re-election campaign in May 2025.

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