VOTERS went to the polls in elections to fill two vacant parliamentary seats on Thursday (19) that will be a test of how prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories are faring in his party’s heartlands before a national election expected next year.
The by-elections were triggered by high-profile resignations of two Tory lawmakers, and are seen as an important electoral test for Sunak after his party’s annual party conference, which he hoped would reinvent his premiership.
Sunak’s Tories are bidding to keep hold of the Mid-Bedfordshire seat in southeast England vacated by former minister Nadine Dorries, who criticised Sunak’s leadership when she formally resigned in the summer.
The contest in Tamworth in central England was triggered last month when Chris Pincher, whose role as deputy chief whip involved enforcing party discipline, resigned after he was suspended for groping two men at a London club, ultimately triggering the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
For Sunak, a victory in either seat would help support his claim that he is capable of providing the change that he claims voters want.
In his speech to his party’s conference speech earlier this month, Sunak repeatedly mentioned the word change and cancelled part of an expensive high-speed rail project.
Retirees in the mainly rural constituency in central England said they expected the Tories to hold the seat but that without Johnson they would flounder in the national ballot, expected next year.
Meanwhile, some younger voters said they were so fed up with politicians of all stripes they wouldn’t be voting in either poll.
Nursery nurse Leigh-Ann Munn said she hadn’t decided who to vote for yet but that the biggest issue for her was spiralling costs.
The 31-year-old mother of a toddler from the small town of Ampthill said the rise in food, energy and housing costs had hit her family “big time”.
“My grocery bills have doubled. Nursery costs have gone up, everything has, it’s just so hard,” she said.
Retired museum worker Maureen Dunlop, 75, said she thought “getting rid of Boris” had been a mistake for the Tory Party.
“I know he was an idiot,” she said referring to controversies over Covid-19 rule breaking in his Downing Street Office, “but I don’t think they’ll win (next year) without him.”
Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 with an 80 seat majority in parliament.
“The cost of living crisis is a mess,” said one Mid-Bedfordshire voter, a retired accountant, also from Ampthill who asked not to be named.
“I like to vote Conservative, and I probably will, but they’ve not been achieving much recently, the 76-year-old said.
“I think Boris did a good job,” he added.
For 26-year-old Niall Barnaville, however, the election remains of little interest.
“It makes no difference to me at all. I’ll just deal with the cards I’m dealt,” said the engineer from the village of Stewartby said.
“For me to vote in something I’d have to have some level of faith in it and I don’t,” he added.
The Tories and the opposition Labour were both trying to manage expectations before the results are announced early on Friday (20) morning.
Although the Tories won the Tamworth seat with a majority of 19,634 votes and Mid-Bedfordshire by 24,664 in 2019, the party is trailing heavily behind Labour in opinion polls.
A spokesman for Labour leader Keir Starmer said his party’s chances of winning either seat had the same likelihood of a “moonshot”.
Sunak’s press secretary told reporters on Wednesday (18) that the Tories faced “difficult headwinds” in trying to retain the seats because of the circumstances of the resignations.