Britain’s governing Conservative Party on Friday suffered crushing defeats in electoral contests for two of its safest parliamentary seats, sending an ominous signal to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about his chances of holding onto power in the next general election.
The results were the latest evidence of a Labour Party resurgence after 13 years in opposition, and some analysts said the scale of its success suggested the party was headed for a decisive victory when the country goes to the polls sometime in the next 15 months.
Labour’s wins in two former Conservative strongholds — one of which the Tories had held since 1931 — came as Britain’s health care system suffers acute strain, the country faces persistent labor unrest and its economy stagnates amid high inflation.
While those conditions were always likely to put the ruling party under pressure, the losses in the heartlands were of sufficient magnitude to suggest that a fundamental shift in the electoral landscape might be underway, political analysts said.
“It is beginning to look terminal for the Tories now,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. He added that to lose two contests — known as by-elections — for such safe seats “indicates that there is a time-for-a-change mood in the British electorate and once that happens it’s very difficult to hold back the tide.”
Few analysts expected Labour to win both seats. Less than four years ago, the party suffered its worst performance in a general election in eight decades, under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. His successor, Keir Starmer, is widely viewed as a competent, technocratic lawmaker who has shifted his party to the political center ground, but struggles to inspire voters.
On Friday he celebrated with jubilant party workers and said that Labour was redrawing the political map. “Each of these results is extraordinary,” he said. “It is history in the making.”
The defeats sent shock waves through the Conservatives, many of whose lawmakers fear losing their seats at the next election. One member of parliament, Andrea Jenkyns, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the party needs “to make far-reaching major changes now to instill confidence in the Conservative voters.”
Having been Conservative Party leader and prime minister for a year, Mr. Sunak could theoretically face a leadership challenge were enough of his lawmakers to try to unseat him, but few analysts believe that is a realistic prospect so close to an election, particularly as there is no obvious alternative.
In Tamworth, northeast of Birmingham, Labour’s Sarah Edwards overturned a Conservative Party majority in the last general election of almost 20,000 votes to win narrowly, while in Mid Bedfordshire, around 50 miles north of London, Alistair Strathern overcame an even bigger deficit of 24,664 votes to seize the seat.
Analysts usually caution against over-interpreting these types of contests, where there is no prospect of the result changing the government, and where voters often cast ballots to register a protest against the governing party. Less than 36 percent of registered voters turned out to vote in Tamworth; in Mid Bedfordshire the proportion was higher, at 44 per cent.
Because the Conservatives won so convincingly in the last general election, in 2019, Labour has an electoral mountain to climb if it is to win a clear majority.
Yet the scale of Friday’s defeats does not bode well for Mr. Sunak. The results will also increase Mr. Starmer’s confidence that Labour can win enough seats to give him a healthy mandate to govern.
John Curtice, a professor at the University of Strathclyde and a leading polling expert, told the BBC that it was reasonable to argue “that the Conservative Party faces the serious prospect of losing the next general election heavily and maybe even more heavily than they did in 1997.”
That was a reference to Tony Blair’s crushing victory that installed Labour in power, which it then held for 13 years.
Conservative Party officials sought to minimize the scale of the defeat, pointing to the difficult local context in which both elections were fought. In Tamworth voters were choosing a successor to Chris Pincher, the former Conservative lawmaker who resigned from Parliament after a drunken incident in which, it was alleged, he had groped two men.
In Mid Bedfordshire the contest was to replace Nadine Dorries, a former cabinet minister and prominent supporter of Boris Johnson, who quit as prime minister last year. Ms. Dorries announced her intention to leave Parliament in June when Mr. Johnson stood down as a lawmaker, but delayed her formal resignation and faced accusations of absenteeism.
Mr. Curtice said that British public opinion had turned against the Conservatives first in December 2021, when Mr. Johnson was prime minister, after revelations about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, and then again last year during the brief leadership of his successor, Liz Truss. Her economic plans, which caused financial turmoil and lasting damage to the housing market, made her the country’s shortest-lived prime minister in history.
“One can reasonably argue that we are where we are because of these two events,” Mr. Curtice said.
Nonetheless the results were a stinging blow to Mr. Sunak, who has restored some stability but failed to close a persistent double-digit deficit in the opinion polls against Labour. He must call an election by January 2025.
In recent weeks, Mr. Sunak tried to seize the initiative with several headline-grabbing decisions: scaling back climate change targets, canceling the second phase of a high-speed rail project, announcing new measures to phase out the sale of cigarettes to young people and proposing a shake-up to the high school examination system.
But voters appear skeptical of his claims to be the candidate of change, and little electoral reward seems to have flowed from the announcements, three of which were made at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester earlier this month.
That meeting was dominated by a high-profile appearance by Ms. Truss, and by scarcely concealed jockeying by those who see themselves as contenders for the party leadership, should the Conservatives lose the general election.
By contrast, Labour’s conference in Liverpool, the week after, presented a more unified and confident image of a party that sees itself as increasingly close to power.
The Conservative Party chair, Greg Hands, said on Friday that he was disappointed with the election results but blamed “specific circumstances” in the two districts and said his party’s supporters had simply stayed at home.
“We need to think particularly about the fact that Conservative voters are not coming out to vote,” he told Sky News.
But Mr. Curtice, the polling expert, said that “no government has hitherto lost to the principal opposition party — in a by-election — a seat as safe as Tamworth.” He also recalled that the Conservatives had lost a similar election in the same region, in 1996.
The following year, Labour won its landslide general election victory under Mr. Blair.