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Rishi Sunak begs angry Tories not to ‘put Keir Starmer in power’ by voting Reform after latest catastrophic by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood – as MPs step up demands for tax cuts to ‘win back’ collapsing support


Rishi Sunak put a brave face on another catastrophic set of by-elections today as he faces mounting Tory calls for tax cuts.

The PM bemoaned low turnout and warned that voting Reform would only ‘put Keir Starmer in power’ after Labour seized the previously safe seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood.  

Gen Kitchen turned a Conservative majority of more than 18,500 in Wellingborough into a Labour one of 6,436. The vote share swing of 28.5 percentage points was the second largest from Tory to Labour at a by-election since the Second World War.

In Kingswood, Damien Egan, the former mayor of Lewisham in London, secured a majority of 2,501 after overturning the 11,220 Conservative majority. 

But senior Conservatives highlighted the scale of the collapse in the party’s support – bigger than the swing to Labour – and sounded alarm at surges by Reform UK.

The Tories have now lost more by-elections since 2019 than any other government in a single term since the 1960s. 

The Reform Party’s Rupert Lowe took 10 per cent of the vote in Kingswood, while Ben Habib landed 13 per cent in Wellingborough. It is the first time the party has polled this high in a by-election.

If all the Reform voters had backed the Tories in Kingswood it would have held onto the seat, repeating a situation seen in the by-elections last year in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. 

And in Wellingborough the party’s total was more than 50 per cent of the Tory vote – though it would not have ben enough to hang onto the seat. The Tory vote share in the seat collapsed from 62.2 per cent in 2019 to just 24.6 per cent.

Rishi Sunak (pictured on a visit to Harlow in Essex today) put a brave face on another catastrophic set of by-elections as he faces mounting Tory calls for tax cuts

Rishi Sunak (pictured on a visit to Harlow in Essex today) put a brave face on another catastrophic set of by-elections as he faces mounting Tory calls for tax cuts

Gen Kitchen won Wellingborough by overturning a Conservative majority of more than 18,500, winning by 6,436.

Gen Kitchen won Wellingborough by overturning a Conservative majority of more than 18,500, winning by 6,436.

Damien Egan, the former mayor of Lewisham in London, overturned a Conservative majority of 11,220 in Kingswood, securing 11,176 votes and a majority of 2,501.

Damien Egan, the former mayor of Lewisham in London, overturned a Conservative majority of 11,220 in Kingswood, securing 11,176 votes and a majority of 2,501.

Mr Egan is congratulated by his husband after emerging victorious last night

Mr Egan is congratulated by his husband after emerging victorious last night

Wellingborough in Northamptonshire is the former seat of Peter Bone, who was forced out by a recall petition after a Parliamentary probe ruled he bullied and sexually mistreated a former aide. Mr Bone's partner, Helen Harrison, was the Tory candidate.

Wellingborough in Northamptonshire is the former seat of Peter Bone, who was forced out by a recall petition after a Parliamentary probe ruled he bullied and sexually mistreated a former aide. Mr Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, was the Tory candidate.

On a visit to Harlow in Essex this morning, Mr Sunak told reporters: ‘A vote for anyone who isn’t the Conservative candidate, whether that’s Reform or anyone else, is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in power.

‘That’s the actual choice at the general election, between me and him, between the Conservatives and Labour.

‘Now I believe our plan is working. At the start of this year we’re heading in the right direction, taxes are coming down, inflation is falling, and if we stick with that plan we can deliver everyone a brighter future.’

Mr Sunak pointed to low turnout and ‘particular circumstances’ in the contests.

‘Midterm elections are always difficult for incumbent governments, and the circumstances of these elections were of course particularly challenging,’ he said.

‘Now, I think if you look at the results, very low turnout, and it shows that we’ve got work to do to show people that we are delivering on their priorities and that’s what I’m absolutely determined to do, but also shows that there isn’t a huge amount of enthusiasm for the alternative in Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, and that’s because they don’t have a plan.

‘And if you don’t have a plan, you can’t deliver real change. And when the general election comes, that’s the message I’ll be making to the country. Stick with our plan, because it is starting to deliver the change that the country wants and needs.’

Keir Starmer said the results of Thursday’s by-elections show the public ‘want change’.

The Labour leader said: ‘These are fantastic results in Kingswood and Wellingborough that show people want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party to deliver it.

‘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.

Wellingborough result 

Gen Kitchen (Lab) 13,844

Helen Harrison (Con) 7,408

Ben Habib (Reform) 3,919

Ana Savage Gunn (Lib Dem) 1,422

Marion Turner-Hawes (ND) 1,115 

Will Morris (Green) 1,020

Kev Watts (Ind) 533

Alex Merola (Britain 1st) 477

Nick The Flying Brick (Loony) 217

Andre Pyne-Bailey (Ind) 172

Ankit Love Jay Mala (ND) 18

‘The Tories 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.

‘Those who gave us their trust in Kingswood and Wellingborough, and those considering doing so, can be safe in the knowledge that we will spend every day working to get Britain’s future back.’

Ms Kitchen said she was ‘ecstatic’ at the result, adding that the double by-election win for Labour shows that people are ‘fed up’ and want change.

She said: ‘I hope Damien is as ecstatic as I am, and I’m sure the Labour leadership will be as well.

‘This shows that people are fed up, they want change, they want competency, they want pragmatism and they want politicians to under-promise and over-deliver, which is what I am hoping to do.

‘It shows how much hard work we put in and the real positive message we were putting out. There is a real appetite for a fresh start and change.’

Labour’s success means the Conservatives have now lost 10 by-elections in the course of this parliament – two more than the eight defeats suffered by the 1992-97 Conservative administration led by John Major. 

Both seats were won by the Tories with healthy five-digit majorities in 2019. But turnout in both votes was below 40 per cent, with senior figures blaming the defeat on disaffected Conservatives staying away from ballot boxes. 

Speaking from the Kingswood election count, former minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said the Conservative Party needed to ‘learn from the result’.

He said: ‘I think we should learn from this result and look at what happened with the Reform Party vote. Conservative Party votes are most likely to come from people who stay at home or who voted Reform.

Kingswood result 

Damien Egan (Lab) 11,176 

Sam Bromiley (Con) 8,675 

Rupert Lowe (Reform) 2,578 

Lorraine Francis (Green) 1,450 

Andrew Brown (Lib Dem) 861

Nicholas Wood (UKIP) 129

‘How do we win them back to the Tory family? People who share many views and values with us. By delivering things they believe in and that means lower taxation, taking more of the advantages of Brexit, with more of the removal of EU retained law, it means doing less on the green issue that is making people cold and poor, and helping revitalise our economy.

‘I think those issues will have a great appeal.’

Wellingborough in Northamptonshire is the former seat of Peter Bone, who was forced out by a recall petition after a Parliamentary probe ruled he bullied and sexually mistreated a former aide. 

To make things worse, Mr Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, was the controversial choice for Wellingborough candidate for the party.

Immediately after the result she insisted she would be standing again at the general election. 

Insiders said the furore over Mr Bone had ‘weighed heavily’ on the Tory campaign. 

It comes against a backdrop of confirmation yesterday that the UK has fallen into recession, just weeks before the next Budget, and months before the whole country is due to go to the polls. 

However, Labour has also had a torrid week of negative headlines over green policy and Gaza.

Meanwhile few MPs have campaigned for Sam Bromiley in Kingswood, a seat in the Bristol suburbs that will disappear later this year at the general election. Previous MP Chris Skidmore quit in protest at the government backing off Net Zero plans. 

There were 24,905 votes cast in Kingswood, a turnout of 37.11 per cent. In Wellingborough turnout was 38 per cent – both relatively low, even for by-elections.

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden said both by-election results were ‘very disappointing’.

‘I think one of the most disappointing things for me though is the turnout in the by-elections was so significantly down compared to the previous general elections in both seats. I want to see people actively participating in democracy,’ he told Sky News.

‘I think that shows we’ve got a lot to do to get people out there and enthused to vote again, and probably the Opposition have a similar challenge.’

Mr Holden also appealed for the right to unite against Labour, accusing Reform of having the ‘ambition’ to put Sir Keir into No10.

‘Their ambition is to block Conservatives winning seats and therefore put Keir Starmer into Downing Street,’ he told the BBC.

‘They’ve made it very clear, you’ve read out that statement from them, that’s what Reform UK want to do, they want to see Keir Starmer in Downing Street and not have a Conservative government.’

He added: ‘Reform aren’t challenging realistically for seats. This general elections is going to be a battle between the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

‘All Reform are going to do, as they’ve said themselves, is help put Keir Starmer and Labour into Downing Street.’

Asked if Prime Minister Rishi Sunak needs to appease the right of the Conservative Party, Mr Holden said: ‘If the right of the British politics and the centre and centre-right – that broad church which is the Conservative Party – doesn’t unite, then we will see a Labour victory.’

Immediately after the result Ms Harrison insisted she would be standing again at the general election

Immediately after the result Ms Harrison insisted she would be standing again at the general election

The votes were triggered by the recall of Peter Bone (pictured, with his partner, the Tory Wellingborough candidate Helen Harrison)  in Wellingborough over bullying allegations, and Chris Skidmore (below) quitting in protest in Kingswood at the government backing off Net Zero plans.

The votes were triggered by the recall of Peter Bone (pictured, with his partner, the Tory Wellingborough candidate Helen Harrison)  in Wellingborough over bullying allegations, and Chris Skidmore (below) quitting in protest in Kingswood at the government backing off Net Zero plans.

Elections analyst Professor Michael Thrasher said it was impossible to say how many Tories had switched to Labour because the presence of Reform UK ‘muddies the water’.

He predicted the party, founded by Nigel Farage and headed by Richard Tice, would be a ‘significant player’ at the general election. 

‘Any support that Reform gets is bound to hurt Conservatives and will be the difference between some Conservatives holding on to their seats or losing them,’ he told Sky News.

‘They are a critical player at the next election.’

Prof Thrasher highlighted that in Kingswood the Reform vote was slightly larger than the majority Labour secured.

He said: ‘You can be certain that sitting Conservative MPs are doing precisely those kind of numbers to see how much damage they can do… it’s not quite as successful as Ukip was in 2015, but they are going to be significant players.

‘Whether and how the Conservative party as a whole begins to have a conversation with Reform… I will be interested to see that.’

Prof Thrasher also suggested that the Rochdale by-election in a fortnight would be the ‘critical test’ for Sir Keir.   

‘There will be a critical test for Labour in Rochdale. We know the background to that event,’ he said. 

‘And how Labour – if they should lose that seat, which seems likely as far as I can see – how Labour handles that and how its opponents exploit that… there may well yet be another twist in the narrative of this general election year.’

Sir Keir has been derided for his weak response to comments by his candidate in the upcoming Rochdale by-election. 

Azhar Ali apologised after he was recorded during a meeting of Lancashire Labour members suggesting that Israel had taken Hamas‘ October 7 attack as a pretext to invade Gaza.

The party leadership initially stood by him, but withdrew its backing after allegations emerged that he had also blamed ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ for the suspension of Labour MP Andy McDonald.

A second parliamentary candidate, Graham Jones, was suspended on Tuesday after audio obtained by website Guido Fawkes appeared to show the former Labour MP using abusive language at the same meeting Mr Ali attended.

Both votes are seen as two-horse races between Labour and the Conservatives.

Kingswood’s vote was triggered by Mr Skidmore’s resignation as an MP in protest at Government legislation to boost North Sea oil and gas drilling.

He won the South Gloucestershire constituency for the Tories at the past four general elections, before which Labour held it at every general election since 1992.

The Opposition needs a much smaller swing to overturn the Conservative majority of 23 per cent than the ones it recently secured in Tamworth, Selby and Ainsty and Mid Bedfordshire.

The by-election in Wellingborough came after former Tory MP Mr Bone received a six-week suspension from the Commons when an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

He won the Northamptonshire constituency at every general election from 2005 to 2019, with Labour coming second in four of the five contests and Ukip in 2015. His majority in 2019 was 36 per cent.

The swing needed by Labour to win the seat is at 17.9 percentage points – in other words, the equivalent of a net change of 18 in every 100 people who voted Tory in 2019 switching sides.

The Tory collapse was repeated in Kingswood, where Labour also emerged triumphant

Alarm bells will be ringing at CCHQ after the showing by Reform UK in Wellingborough overnight

The outcomes in Kingswood and Wellingborough will be closely watched for evidence of any hit to Sir Keir's (pictured this morning) support from the party's meltdown over the Middle East

The outcomes in Kingswood and Wellingborough will be closely watched for evidence of any hit to Sir Keir’s (pictured this morning) support from the party’s meltdown over the Middle East

This is still a smaller swing than the ones managed by Labour in 2023 at the by-elections in Tamworth, Selby & Ainsty and Mid Bedfordshire.

Before the polls closed one senior Tory who has been on doorsteps in the seats over the past week told MailOnline: ‘Kingswood and Wellingborough are going to be lost. But the narrative is that Keir is expected to win them, and the turnout is going to be very low again. 

‘He is not convincing people, it’s the Tories not showing up.’ 

According to the latest voting intention poll from Savanta, the lead enjoyed by Labour over the Conservatives has dropped by seven points after a turbulent couple of weeks for the party.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party has held a sustained double-digit advantage over the Tories in national opinion polls, but the past week has been overshadowed by criticism of remarks made by Rochdale candidate

Polls open at 7am and close at 10pm on Thursday, with the results expected to be declared in both constituencies some time after 4am.

The Rochdale by-election will take place separately on February 29.

Due to new laws brought in by the Government, voters will need to bring photo ID – such as a passport or driving licence – in order to cast their ballots.



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