Sunak appeals to voters after party loss

U.K. leader seeks support as elections leave Conservatives down 2 seats

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) checks a new electric hybrid deployment police car Friday during a media visit to Harlow Police Station in Essex, England.
(AP/Dan Kitwood)
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) checks a new electric hybrid deployment police car Friday during a media visit to Harlow Police Station in Essex, England. (AP/Dan Kitwood)

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday urged voters, and his restless party, to stick with him after two English districts elected opposition-party lawmakers in seats that Sunak's Conservatives had held for years.

The results will worsen fears among Conservatives that, after 14 years in power, the party is heading for a drubbing when a national election is held in less than a year. The Tories consistently lag between 10 and 20 points behind the left-of-center Labour Party in nationwide opinion polls.

Labour candidate Damien Egan won the House of Commons seat of Kingswood in southwest England, and Labour's Gen Kitchen took Wellingborough in the country's center, results announced Friday showed. The Conservatives won both by large margins at the last national election in 2019 but saw support collapse in Thursday's special elections.

Reform U.K. -- formerly known as the Brexit Party -- came third, leaving the Conservatives facing pressure from the right as well as the left.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the results "show people want change."

But Sunak implored voters to "stick with our plan, because it is starting to deliver the change that the country wants and needs."

"We've clearly been through a lot over the past couple of years as a country, but I genuinely believe at the start of this year we're pointing in the right direction," he told reporters.

Thursday's elections replaced one lawmaker who quit to protest Sunak's lack of commitment to green energy, and another who was ousted over allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct.

The Conservatives have now lost 10 by-elections since the last general election, more than any administration since the 1960s. That includes six defeats -- and one win -- since Sunak took office in October 2022. He replaced Liz Truss, who rocked the economy with a plan for unfunded tax cuts and lasted just seven weeks in office.

Sunak, the fifth Conservative leader since 2016, has restored a measure of stability, but failed to revive the governing party's popularity.

The Conservatives have been in power nationally since 2010, years that saw austerity after the world banking crisis, Britain's divisive decision to leave the European Union, a global pandemic and a European war that triggered the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

Polls show the Conservatives are losing support across the country, from affluent southern voters turned off by Brexit to working-class northern voters who switched from Labour for the 2019 election, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to spread prosperity to long-neglected areas.

Those promises remain largely unmet, and Britain's economic growth has come to a virtual standstill, with the country slipping into recession at the end of 2023 for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. That limits the government's scope for wooing voters with pre-election tax cuts.

Victorious Kingswood candidate Egan said that "14 years of Conservative government have sucked the hope out of our country with a feeling that no matter how hard you work, you just can't move forward.

"It doesn't have to be this way -- you know it, I know it, we all know it," he said.

Conservative Party Chairman Richard Holden called the results "very disappointing," though the party said the low turnout -- less than 40% of eligible voters cast ballots -- was a sign British electors are not enthusiastic about Labour.

But University of Strathclyde polling expert John Curtice said the results confirmed that the Conservatives are in "very, very considerable electoral trouble."

"The Conservatives are going to have to defeat the historical record to come back from where they are," he told the BBC.

Sunak must call an election this year, though the exact date is up to him.

The Conservative losses may embolden Sunak's many rivals in the fractious party, who are already positioning themselves for the leadership contest that would likely come after an election defeat. Some even want to oust Sunak sooner, replacing him with a hard-liner who might win back voters from Reform, which wants to curb migration, cut taxes and scrap green-energy measures.

As well as grappling with a stuttering economy, Sunak is trying to overcome a U.K. Supreme Court ban on his signature migration policy, a plan to send asylum-seekers who reach Britain across the English Channel on a one-way trip to Rwanda. The plan was announced almost two years ago, but no flights have taken off amid political and legal opposition.

  photo  Labour candidate Damien Egan gives a speech after being declared MP for Kingswood, after being declared winner in the Kingswood by-election, at the Thornbury Leisure Centre, Gloucestershire, Friday Feb. 16, 2024. (Ben Birchall//PA via AP)
 
 
  photo  Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak picks up a 'zombie knife' while visiting Harlow Police Station during a media visit in Essex, England, Friday Feb. 16, 2024. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 
  photo  Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks on during a media visit to Harlow Police Station in Essex, England, Friday Feb. 16, 2024. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 
  photo  Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks with Police Sergeant Gavin Tuck while visiting Harlow Police Station during a media visit in Essex, England, Friday Feb. 16, 2024. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 
  photo  Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak checks a new Electric Hybrid deployment police car during a media visit to Harlow Police Station in Essex, England, Friday Feb. 16, 2024. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 

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