Tories reel as Labour wins two byelections and Reform UK gains more than 10% of vote

Victory for opposition in previously safe Conservative seats is latest blow to Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak suffered a severe double blow on Friday after the Conservatives lost two safe seats to Labour, with growing signs that the Tories are also losing votes on the right to the populist Reform UK party.

Labour overturned a Tory majority of 18,500 in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire with a 28.6 per cent swing, the second biggest shift of support to the party recorded since the second world war.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s party also demolished an 11,200 majority in Kingswood near Bristol. “People want change and are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour party to deliver it,” Sir Keir said.

While the results confirmed Labour’s ascendancy ahead of a UK general election expected this autumn, Mr Sunak was also rocked by signs that his party is losing support to the anti-immigration Reform UK party.


Reform, formerly the Brexit Party, secured more than 10 per cent of the vote in both byelections – the first time it had crossed that threshold – to increase jitters in Mr Sunak’s party.

Reform party leader Richard Tice said: “It’s a defining moment – we’ve had our best two results without question. It shows we are a significant force now in British politics and that people have got to take us seriously.”

The results triggered more Tory unrest. Andrea Jenkyns, a former minister, repeated her calls for Mr Sunak to be ousted. “Last chance saloon to change course with a new leader, be tough on immigration & save our great country from the socialists,” she said on the social media platform X.

Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, co-chairs of the New Conservatives faction, called for Mr Sunak to head off the Reform threat by cutting legal migration, reducing taxes, reforming welfare and being prepared to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Sunak said the contests were held in “particularly challenging” circumstances, adding: “I believe our plan is working.” Labour argues the country this week tipped into a “Rishi recession”.

Conservative party chairman Richard Holden also tried to downplay the defeats, blaming low voter turnout. But he appealed for party unity: “People want all of our MPs united and pulling in the right direction,” he told the BBC.

The Conservatives have now lost seats in 10 byelections in this parliament, the worst record of any government in the past 50 years.

While byelections are not accurate predictors of national elections, the two results appeared to confirm a trend in British politics, with the Conservatives in deep trouble and Labour and Reform on the rise.

In Wellingborough, Labour received 13,844 votes to the Conservatives’ 7,408, while Reform UK secured 3,919 votes.

In Kingswood, Labour secured a 16 per cent swing. The party won 11,176 votes, while the Tories took 8,675. Reform UK came in third with 2,578 votes.

Labour has secured a string of byelection wins in recent months, having now taken six seats from the Conservatives since July.

Sir Keir said: “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.

“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.”

The results will come as a relief to Sir Keir, who has suffered one of the most challenging fortnights of his leadership.

The Labour leader was criticised for abandoning a pledge to spend £28 billion (€33 billion) a year on green investment and sparked anger from the left and right of his party after he dithered before suspending two party candidates for remarks that were critical of Israel.

The results also cap a challenging few days for the Conservatives, who spent Thursday battling accusations that they were responsible for tipping the UK into a recession at the end of last year.

The Conservatives, who are trailing Labour by about 18 percentage points in polls, were conspicuously absent from the campaign trail in Kingswood and Wellingborough, even though they had held both seats for two decades.

Reform split the Conservative vote, securing 10 per cent in Kingswood and 13 per cent in Wellingborough, where it exceeded its national polling average of 10 per cent.

Polling expert Sir John Curtice told the BBC on Friday that Sir Keir“still looks to be on course to be our next prime minister”.

He said Reform’s performance showed that the party’s strong showing in national opinion polls was not “a mirage”. He added: “It makes life even more difficult for the Conservatives than it was already. The Conservatives are in trouble – there’s a new aspect to that trouble.”

Damien Egan, the new Labour MP for Kingswood, was formerly mayor of Lewisham in south London.

The Kingswood byelection was called after former MP Chris Skidmore, an outspoken environmentalist, resigned in protest at the government’s decision to grant new oil and gas licences.

The byelection in Wellingborough, won by 28-year-old Gen Kitchen, was called after a parliamentary watchdog found that then-incumbent MP Peter Bone had verbally bullied, struck and exposed himself to an employee.

Mr Bone denied the allegation but the House of Commons approved a recommended six-week suspension, prompting a recall petition. Mr Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, ran as the Conservative candidate in the seat. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024