(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces a major test of his support next month as the Conservative Party tries to hold two parliamentary districts and build momentum before a UK-wide vote expected in the autumn.
A special election for Wellingborough, central England was scheduled on Thursday for Feb. 15, while the government set in motion a second vote in Kingswood in the southwest that’s likely to be held the same day. The former was triggered after voters petitioned to oust Tory Member of Parliament Peter Bone following a suspension from the House of Commons for bullying. The Kingswood seat was vacated when former minister Chris Skidmore quit in protest over Sunak’s watering down of the UK’s climate policy.
It’s a potentially pivotal moment for Sunak as he seeks to claw back a polling deficit behind Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party that’s fluctuated around 20 points for more than a year. The prime minister is running out of opportunities to show he can restore his party’s electoral fortunes.
Ordinarily, the Tory margin of victory in both seats at the last election in 2019 — more than 11,000 votes in Kingswood and over 18,000 in Wellingborough — would suggest easy holds. But Labour has reeled off a string of historic victories in recent by-elections and will devote significant resources to try to further diminish Sunak’s majority in the House of Commons.
The challenge is exacerbated in Wellingborough by the scandal surrounding Bone, who was found by a Parliament panel to have “committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct” against a member of staff about a decade ago. He denied the allegations, but was suspended from the House of Commons for six weeks. That triggered a so-called petition that was signed by more than 10% of Bone’s constituents, the threshold to oust him.
In a further twist, the local Conservative Party association chose Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, as its candidate. Labour’s candidate is Gen Kitchen, who stood and lost against Tory veteran Andrea Leadsom in the neighboring South Northamptonshire seat in 2019.
In Kingswood, Skidmore — a former science minister — resigned from the parliamentary Tory party and quit his seat this month in protest at Sunak’s plan to allow further oil and gas drilling, saying he could “no longer condone nor continue to support a government that is committed to a course of action that I know is wrong and will cause further harm.”
The Kingswood seat is actually being abolished at the next general election due to constituency boundary changes, meaning the winner would only get a short period as the district’s MP.
Still, there is a good reason for Labour to try to win given that Kingswood borders — and will be partly merged with — Tory bigwig Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North East Somerset seat. Labour would likely view a victory in Kingswood as boosting its chances against Rees-Mogg in the fall.
Sunak also faces the prospect of a third by-election in the coming months after Parliament’s Committee on Standards recommended another MP, Scott Benton, be suspended from the Commons for 35 days after he was caught on video appearing to offer to lobby on gambling issues in exchange for money.
If the Commons ratifies Benton’s suspension, his constituents will have the chance to oust him in a petition, as happened with Bone. He won his Blackpool South seat for the Tories with a margin of 3,690 votes over Labour in 2019.
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