Conservatives Suffer Setback in Parliamentary Elections in Britain

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Britain’s governing Conservative Party has suffered crushing defeats in two parliamentary elections in a new blow to its embattled leader, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose future has been questioned by critics within his fractious political party.

Election results announced early Friday showed the Conservatives had lost seats they had held in Kingswood, near Bristol, and in Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire — a district that had been regarded as one of the party’s more impregnable strongholds. Votes had been cast on Thursday to replace two Conservative lawmakers who had quit Parliament.

With a general election expected later this year, the defeats are likely to compound Mr. Sunak’s difficulties at a time when the British economy is shrinking, interest rates are high and Britain’s health service seems to be in a state of almost permanent crisis. Opinion polls show his party trailing the opposition Labour Party by double-digit margins.

The first result, announced around 2 a.m., came from Kingswood, where Labour defeated the Conservatives by 11,176 votes to 8,675. In Wellingborough, Labour performed even better by securing a seat that, in the last general election, the Conservatives won by more than 18,000 votes. This time, Labour claimed victory by 13,844 votes to 7,408.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, described the Wellingborough vote as a “terrible result for the Conservatives,” adding that it would give “an awful lot for Mr. Sunak to think about.”

Reform U.K., a small right-wing party, performed better than expected, finishing third in both elections. Turnout for both contests was low, at less than 40 percent.

The gloomy mood within the Conservative Party had already deepened on Thursday, after the release of economic data showing that in the last months of 2023, Britain had officially entered a recession.

Though the latest contraction of 0.3 percent in Britain’s gross domestic product was shallow, the confirmation that the economy had shrunk and dipped into recession was nonetheless a blow to Mr. Sunak, who had made a series of pledges last year, including to spur economic growth.

In recent weeks, ministers have asserted that the economy had turned the corner, with Mr. Sunak urging Britons to “stick to the plan” he had outlined to combat inflation and revive the economy. That argument, which is likely to be a cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s election campaign, could become harder to sustain before growth returns. On Thursday, the Labour Party sought to blame Mr. Sunak directly for what it called “Rishi’s recession.”

The latest electoral setback for the Conservatives puts even more pressure on Mr. Sunak after a bad week for the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, who was forced to suspend two of his parliamentary candidates over remarks they made about Israel.

Earlier this year a former cabinet minister, Simon Clarke, called on the prime minister to quit, and analysts will be watching closely to see if more Conservative lawmakers are alarmed enough about their electoral prospects to press for a change of leader.

Forcing Mr. Sunak out would be complicated, particularly since the Conservatives have already replaced two prime ministers — Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — since winning the last general election in 2019. Any new push to topple Mr. Sunak would likely increase the public clamor for a swift general election, which must take place by next January and which Mr. Sunak has promised to call in 2024.

Wellingborough in Northamptonshire had been considered one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats. But its former lawmaker, Peter Bone, was suspended from Parliament after an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

Mr. Bone denied the allegations against him but, following his suspension, enough voters in Wellingborough signed a petition to trigger a new election for the parliamentary seat.

The Conservative Party then selected Mr. Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, to run to replace him.

The vacancy in Kingswood was caused by the resignation of Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister who decided to leave Parliament after Mr. Sunak’s government said it would offer more licenses for the extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea. In his resignation letter, Mr. Skidmore said he was quitting “in protest at the government’s decision to prioritize and politicize new oil and gas licenses above a sensible investment plan for the future.”

Early Friday morning the victorious Labour candidate, Damien Egan, told his cheering supporters that Britain was at a crossroads and urged voters to choose “a changed” Labour Party

“Fourteen years of Conservative government have sucked the hope out of our country, there’s a feeling that no matter how hard you work you just can’t move forward,” he said.

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