Problems mount for UK PM Rishi Sunak as his party suffers heavy defeat in two parliamentary elections

The losses follow a string of bad news for the British prime minister.

The losses follow a string of bad news for the British prime minister. Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesLondonCNN — 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing difficult questions after his governing Conservative Party lost two seats in parliament on Thursday.

The two by-elections – special elections that take place outside of regular election cycles – were won by the main opposition party Labour in dramatic swings that if replicated on a national level would mean a large Labour majority at a general election.

The losses are particularly painful for Sunak, coming just one day after the UK officially entered recession during an ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Other flagship policies are failing for Sunak. His pledge to reduce irregular migration by stopping small boats crossing into England from France is being undermined as a key government deportation policy is repeatedly held up because of accusations it breaches international law.

The Conservative Party traditionally beats Labour on issues like economics and immigration. The fact Sunak is failing on both of these is worrying his party in a year that they will have to call a general election.

While Conservatives were expecting to lose these by-elections, hopes were bolstered when Labour found itself embroiled in an antisemitism scandal earlier this week. A leaked video in which a Labour by-election candidate claimed Israel allowed the Hamas October 7 attack to take place forced the party to withdraw its endorsement. That election will take place later this month with a different candidate.

London, UK. 24th Nov, 2023. Shoppers take advantage of Black Friday sale on Oxford Street in central London as many stores are offering up to 50% off.

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Despite the story cutting through with voters, it appeared to make no difference to them at the ballot box, if these results are anything to go by.

Some Conservatives believe that the party leadership is increasingly out-of-touch and wrecking its own electoral prospects. They think Sunak – the richest person to ever hold the office of Prime Minister – is not an appropriate leader at a time when so many people in the UK are struggling financially.

Others think he panders too much to the center-ground of his party and should be focussing on so-called “red meat” Conservative issues like cutting tax and tearing up environmental policies.

Of particular concern to Conservatives is the rise of Reform UK, the new party of Nigel Farage. Farage has spent decades being a constant thorn in the Conservatives’ side.

As leader of both the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party, he forced the Conservatives into increasingly right-wing positions.

The rise of UKIP under Farage was what ultimately forced former PM David Cameron – now the back in government as foreign secretary – to call a referendum on leaving the EU.

These days Farage is more of a right-wing celebrity and media personality than a true politician. He is honorary president of Reform UK but still has a habit of forcing issues onto the news agenda. He was talking about illegal boat crossings and irregular migration long before the Conservative government picked up the issue. He has a daily TV show and recently appeared on the reality show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

His profile means he can reach the public in ways most politicians cannot. Reform UK is not a serious contender in terms of taking power, but if it can take enough Conservative votes it would make Labour’s path to government even easier.

The right of Sunak’s party is increasingly vocal and some want him to resign. Tellingly, a number of polls recently have shown Sunak is even less popular than his predecessor Liz Truss, who resigned in disgrace after her controversial economic policies caused the pound to crash and interest rates to rise in a matter of days.

Who exactly would replace Sunak is not clear. Boris Johnson no longer sits in parliament so it would be very hard to bring him back in time for the next election. He is also not as universally popular as his own diehard loyalists claim.

With so little time before Sunak has to face the public, it’s hard to see what he and his party can do to avoid what looks increasingly inevitable – being ousted from office by the voters.

The challenge for Sunak in the immediate term, however, isn’t winning over the public, but simply keeping his party together. But if the Prime Minister cannot even do that, the already narrow path to electoral victory keeps shrinking and the length of that path gets shorter.

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