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LONDON: Britain’s opposition Labour Party won contests for two new lawmakers on Friday, dealing a crushing blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives before a national election later this year.

The double defeat underlined the flagging fortunes of the governing party and will do little to silence Sunak’s critics, who fear the Conservatives could face an all-but wipe-out at the national election and want him to change course.

The 43-year-old former investment banker has struggled to restore his party’s fortunes despite recasting himself at various points over the past year as a bold reformer, a stable technocrat and now as someone who needs more time “to stick to the plan” because, he says, that plan is working.

But with the Labour Party still ahead in the polls, Sunak might well need to bend to the demands of some in his party to offer an increasingly disaffected electorate a more right-wing conservative agenda before the election.

Labour was jubilant at the results.

“By winning in these Tory strongholds, we can confidently say that Labour is back in the service of working people and we will work tirelessly to deliver for them,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.

“The Tories (Conservatives) have failed. Rishi’s recession proves that. That’s why we’ve seen so many former Conservative voters switching directly to this changed Labour Party.”

Labour overturned a hefty Conservative majority in the central English town of Wellingborough to win the parliamentary seat with 13,844 votes against 7,408 for the Conservative candidate.

The candidate for the right-wing Reform Party, Ben Habib, won 3,919 votes. In Kingswood, southwestern England, Labour won with 11,176 votes against 8,675 for the Conservative candidate.

The Conservatives have only won four out of 21 by-elections since the last national election in 2019.

Pressure on Sunak

While so-called by-elections are often lost by the governing party, the scale of the defeat in two parliamentary seats the Conservatives have held for years piles pressure on Sunak, who became prime minister just over a year ago.

The governing party also faces a challenge from the right-wing Reform Party. Senior Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said at least in Kingswood, if Reform supporters had voted for the governing party as part of the “Conservative family”, the Conservatives would have held the parliamentary seat.

It appeared that the Conservatives had all but written off the two by-elections.

UK’s Sunak eyes ‘second half’ of 2024 for election

While Labour sent many of its lawmakers and activists to campaign in both places, the Conservatives had a muted presence, with many of its lawmakers concentrating more on trying to hold onto their own seats before the national poll.

Few believed they had any chance of winning in either place - the contest in Wellingborough was triggered after the former member of parliament was forced out over a bullying and harassment scandal, while in Kingswood, former minister Chris Skidmore resigned over Sunak’s climate change policies.

But some had hoped Labour might have been damaged this week when leader Starmer did not move immediately to censure a Labour candidate who was recorded espousing conspiracy theories about Israel and for scrapping a green investment target.

But with turnout low, voters punished the governing party and Sunak, who is struggling to meet his election pledges.

Data on Thursday showed the economy had slipped into recession in the second half of 2023, a challenge for Sunak who has made boosting economic growth a main pledge before the national election.

With many voters angry over a punishing cost-of-living crisis, long waiting times to use the state-run health service and strikes on public transport, Sunak is running out of time to close the gap with Labour.

Rees-Mogg said to turn things around before the national election, it was “about energising the party and having the new ideas” to win traditional Conservative voters back, a possible nod to a new grouping in the party which wants Sunak to move further to the right.

“It’s still all to play for,” said Rees-Mogg.

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