Britain’s ruling Conservative Party suffered a heavy defeat in one electoral district but avoided losing another as results came in early Friday in three by-elections, a critical popularity test for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The small, centrist Liberal Democrats party won one of the Conservatives’ safest seats in Somerton and Frome, in southwest England, reversing a large majority for the Tories, with the Liberal Democrats receiving 21,187 votes against 10,790 for the Conservatives.
But there was better news for Mr. Sunak is in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on the north-west edge of London, where his party is holding on against the main opposition Labor Party in the district represented by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The third contest, at Selby and Ainsty, in Yorkshire in the north of England, is still to be decided.
For Mr. For Sunak, the by-elections are an anxious foretaste of the general election he must call in January 2025. In Britain besieged by high inflation, a stagnating economy and widespread labor unrest, his Conservatives face a real threat of being ousted from power for the first time in 14 years.
While Britain shares some of these economic problems with other countries after the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives have exacerbated the problems with policy missteps and political turmoil that peaked during the short, stormy tenure of Mr. Sunak, Liz Truss.
He proposed sweeping but unfunded tax cuts that alarmed financial markets and triggered his own downfall after 44 days in office. Removed by Mr. The trickle-down agenda of Ms. Truss and restored Britain’s financial stability. But his legacy has become a poisoned chalice for Mr Sunak and his Tory compatriots with the majority of British voters.
“The Liz Truss episode really damaged their reputation for economic competence, and that will be very difficult to recover from,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s going to be very difficult.”
The Labor Party’s lead in opinion polls was so convincing that some analysts predicted in advance that Mr. Sunak will become the first prime minister to lose three so-called by-elections in one day since 1968.
But narrow victories for the Conservatives in Uxbridge and South Ruislip dashed that prospect. There, when all the votes were counted, the final tally was 13,965 for Steve Tuckwell, of the Conservative Party, and 13,470 for Labour’s Danny Beales.
A by-election takes place when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections. This time, the contests are also a reminder of the toxic legacy of another of Mr. Sunak, Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson resigned from his seat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip district, on London’s west edge, after lawmakers ruled he had lied to Parliament over lockdown-defying parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Voters in Selby and Ainsty in northern England are choosing a replacement for one of Mr Johnson’s closest allies, Nigel Adams, who quit after not being given a seat in the House of Lords, as he had hoped.
The third contest took place in Somerton and Frome, a rural district in southwest England, where another Conservative lawmaker, David Warburton, gave up his seat after admitting he had taken cocaine.
“This is probably the closing of a chapter in the story of Boris Johnson’s impact on British politics,” said Robert Hayward, a polling expert who also serves as a Conservative member of the House of Lords. But he added, “Whether closing the whole book is another matter.”
As voting took place in different parts of England, it provided an unusual snapshot of public opinion ahead of the general election. It also captures several trends that have swept through British politics since the last general election in 2019, when Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives won in a landslide victory.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip are the kind of seats Labor needs to win to prove it is credibly approaching power. Mr. Johnson’s political problems weakened the Conservatives, but their fortunes were kept alive by public anger at London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, a Labor member, for his plans to extend a costly ultralow emission zone to all London boroughs, including Uxbridge.
In Selby and Ainsty, a Tory stronghold, Labor hopes to show it has regained the trust of voters in the north and center of England — regions it once led but where it lost to the Tories in the 2019 election.
The vote in Somerton and Frome is a test of the Conservative Party’s fortunes in the areas of central southern England, known as the “blue wall” — after the party’s campaign colours. It is under pressure in the region from a resurgence of the smaller, centrist, Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats benefited from some voters, opposed to the Conservatives, strategically casting their ballots for whoever appeared best placed to defeat the Tory candidate.
Recent British elections have featured talk of a major shift in politics, with candidates emphasizing values and cultural issues. But analysts say these by-elections are dominated by the cost-of-living crisis — kitchen-table concerns that have dogged the Conservatives after more than a decade in power.