JASON GROVES: Uxbridge victory gives Rishi something to cling on to

JASON GROVES: Victory in Uxbridge means Rishi has something to cling on to – but now he’s under pressure to cut tax and ditch costly green pledges

  • Rishi Sunak said today’s win in Uxbridge showed next election is not a ‘done deal’
  • Losses in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome were nothing short of dire

It could have been a lot worse for Rishi Sunak.

In the run-up to Thursday’s unwanted triple by-election, Downing Street was telling anyone who would listen that the circumstances meant the contests were ‘never winnable’.

Yet thanks to 495 voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – and Sadiq Khan’s ill-judged ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) expansion policy – the Prime Minister had something to cling on to this morning.

‘Normally when I get woken up at three in the morning it’s only bad news,’ he joked, on a hastily arranged visit to the Rumbling Tum café in Ruislip. ‘So it was a welcome change.’

The result, he said, showed the next election is not a ‘done deal’.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) and newly elected Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell (Right) arriving at the Rumbling Tum cafe in Uxbridge, west London, following victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election

Newly elected Labour MP Keir Mather (left), with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) at Selby Football Club, North Yorkshire, after winning the Selby and Ainsty by-election

Certainly, Uxbridge is an embarrassing setback for Sir Keir Starmer, who was forced to cancel plans to stop off there today on a post-election ‘victory lap’.

But the PM should be careful about taking too much comfort from it.

The results in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome were nothing short of dire for the Conservatives.

In Selby, the Tories surrendered a 20,000 majority, as Labour benefited from the second-biggest swing it has enjoyed in modern history.

In Somerton, the Liberal Democrats produced a staggering 29 per cent swing against the Conservatives to take the formerly safe seat by a landslide.

Ominously, there were clear signs of the kind of tactical voting last seen on a major scale in Tony Blair’s 1997 victory.

Labour lost its deposit in Somerton, while the Lib Dems did the same in Selby as voters flocked to whichever party had the best chance of ejecting the Conservatives.

In both seats, Tory voters either switched sides or stayed at home.

Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Dyke (left) with party leader Sir Ed Davey (right) in Frome, Somerset, after winning the Somerton and Frome by-election

Without the Uxbridge result as cover, Mr Sunak’s message today that the Government should ‘double down and stick to our plan’ would have risked sounding dangerously complacent.

And the factors that allowed the Tories to hang on in Uxbridge were very specific to London, where the Labour mayor’s controversial Ulez expansion is asking drivers of older vehicles to pay £12.50 a day to use their cars.

The PM said the result showed that ‘when confronted with the actual reality of the Labour Party’ people will vote Conservative.

But it is not yet easy to see how this can be translated into a nationwide election strategy, particularly when Labour is now likely to become even more cautious in making policy pledges.

Labour sources initially predicted they would ‘win big’ in Boris Johnson’s former constituency.

But shadow ministers got a rude awakening when they actually arrived to campaign in the seat and found themselves confronted by voters angry at the Labour mayor’s war on the motorist.

The PM said the result showed that ‘when confronted with the actual reality of the Labour Party’ people will vote Conservative. Pictured: Mr Sunak with Steve Tuckwell at a cafe in Ruislip

Sir Keir, who had initially backed the Ulez expansion, became quieter and quieter on the subject as the campaign went on.

After the result came in, one Labour MP messaged to say simply: ‘Ulez, U Lose.’

The immediate Labour backlash was directed at Mr Khan today. But it will also fuel the internal debate about whether Sir Keir should soften Labour’s eye-watering Net Zero targets and sack Ed Miliband who has championed them.

Mr Sunak is also facing pressure for policy changes. In an otherwise loyal intervention, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was time to ‘ditch high cost green policies’.

Another former minister went further, saying it was time to reverse the ‘high tax, high spend, high regulation policies of decline’.

The Uxbridge result has thrown the PM a temporary lifeline and given Labour something to think about.

But taken together, the three by-elections should serve as a big wake-up call. Floating voters need a reason to go out and vote Conservative.

Fear and loathing of Labour’s Ulez policy did the trick in Uxbridge – just.

At a national level, fear and loathing of bland Sir Keir is unlikely to be enough.

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