Rishi Sunak has insisted the circumstances surrounding the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections were “particularly challenging” after suffering a double defeat that Sir Keir Starmer said showed people were “crying out for change”.

In his first remarks since the votes, the Prime Minister said there is “not a huge amount of enthusiasm” for Labour despite the party flipping Tory majorities in the tens of thousands overnight.

The results mean the Conservative Government has endured more by-election losses than any administration since the 1960s, surpassing the eight defeats suffered by John Major in the run-up to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory.

Speaking to broadcasters on a visit to a police station in Harlow, Essex, Mr Sunak said: “Midterm elections are always difficult for incumbent governments, and the circumstances of these elections were of course particularly challenging.

“Now, I think if you look at the results, very low turnout, and it shows that we’ve got work to do to show people that we are delivering on their priorities and that’s what I’m absolutely determined to do, but also shows that there isn’t a huge amount of enthusiasm for the alternative in Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, and that’s because they don’t have a plan.

“And if you don’t have a plan, you can’t deliver real change. And when the general election comes, that’s the message I’ll be making to the country. Stick with our plan, because it is starting to deliver the change that the country wants and needs.”

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The Wellingborough by-election was triggered by the six-week Commons suspension of former Tory MP Peter Bone after an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, the Kingswood vote came after former Conservative MP Chris Skidmore resigned in protest at Government legislation to boost North Sea oil and gas drilling.

Sir Keir said Labour had seen “Tory switchers” making up part of its vote share, but also emphasised that he had warned his team against complacency in the run-up to this year’s general election.

“The progress we’ve now made (is) from the worst results since 1935 to being now credible contenders – and that is all we are – for the 2024 election,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“We’re trying to do, if you like, what Kinnock, what Smith and Blair did, over 13 or 14 years, in four short years.”

The results are already placing further pressure on Mr Sunak from within the right of his own party to “change course” with tax cuts and a harder stance on immigration.

Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, co-chairs of the New Conservatives grouping of MPs mainly from the 2019 intake, said: “Voters are not flocking to Labour. They want a genuine alternative to the consensus politics of the last two decades – high taxes, low security, managed decline.”

They added: “There is still time – but our party must change course. We are calling on the Government to adapt to the reality that the by-elections reveal. Our target voters want a different and a better offer.”

The by-elections came at testing times for both main parties, with Labour struggling to contain the fallout over a leaked recording of comments made by a parliamentary candidate about Israel and Jewish people.

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Sir Keir acknowledged it had been a “bumpy” week, but insisted Friday’s victories suggest the public can see that Labour has changed since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which was often overshadowed by controversies surrounding its handling of antisemitism allegations.

The twin blows will compound the Prime Minister’s woes, coming the day after it was officially announced that the UK had entered a recession at the end of 2023.

Following the results, the Prime Minister talked up tax cuts under his leadership and insisted he can “give everyone peace of mind that there is a better future ahead” if the Government “sticks with the plan” to halve inflation.

But the Tories have now clocked up more by-election defeats than any other government in a single parliament since Harold Wilson’s 1960s Labour administration.

It also means the party has suffered the most losses of any Conservative administration than in any single parliament since the Second World War.

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The Conservatives sought to put a gloss on the results by highlighting low turnout, which stood at just 37% in Kingswood and 38% in Wellingborough.

But Labour overturned majorities of 11,220 and 18,540 respectively, delivering the Government’s ninth and tenth by-election defeats of the current Parliament and securing its second-largest swing from the Tories ever.

Gen Kitchen secured Wellingborough with 45.8% of the vote, while Damien Egan won Kingswood with 44.9% of the vote.

The results provided Labour with a boost after a U-turn on the party’s pledge to spend £28 billion on green projects and the antisemitism row that forced it to drop Azhar Ali, who had been standing for the party in the upcoming Rochdale by-election.

Gen Kitchen
Gen Kitchen overturned a massive Tory majority in Wellingborough (Joe Giddens/PA)

“I think there is a message now from these by-elections… I think the country is crying out for change. Everybody knows that,” Sir Keir said.

“Things aren’t working. Their NHS isn’t working. They’ve got a cost-of-living crisis. I think they’ve concluded that the Tories have failed after 14 years.”

Both contests were seen largely as two-horse races between Labour and the Tories, though the Conservatives also faced the threat of strengthening support for Reform UK among disgruntled voters on the right.

Richard Tice’s party scored more than 10% of the vote for the first time in a by-election, with deputy leader Ben Habib winning 13% in the heavily pro-Leave constituency of Wellingborough.

Rupert Lowe, its candidate in Kingswood, won 10%.

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Mr Habib told Sky News the result was “remarkable”, adding: “People are absolutely fed up with the manner in which this country is being governed.”

Defeated Conservative candidates Sam Bromiley and Helen Harrison left their respective counts in Kingswood and Wellingborough without speaking to reporters.

But senior Conservative MP Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg sought to play down the importance of the results for predicting what will happen at the general election.

He told the PA news agency: “By-elections are an opportunity for people not to turn out, to protest, and at ensuing general elections they don’t give a consistent guide to what happens.”

Damien Egan
Newly elected Labour MP Damien Egan meets his supporters after being declared winner in the Kingswood by-election (Ben Birchall/PA)

In his victory speech, Mr Egan thanked the people of Kingswood for putting their trust in him and hit out at “Rishi’s recession” – a phrase that is fast becoming a Labour slogan following Thursday’s dismal economic figures.

He said: “It’s a trust that I promise to repay, to show you that politics can be different and it can make a difference.”

Pollster Sir John Curtice said the Conservatives “badly need to show they can start to climb the electoral mountain”, suggesting they seemed to have “almost given up the fight from the beginning” in both seats.

“One has to say one would normally have expected a governing party, what are we now, maybe a little more than nine months away from the general election, to be fighting by-elections like this as hard as they could,” he said.