Voting starts in two UK by-elections in test of support for PM Sunak

LONDON (Reuters) – Voters went to the polls in elections to fill two vacant British parliamentary seats on Thursday that will be a test of how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives 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 Conservative 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 Conservatives 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.

The Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party were both trying to manage expectations before the results are announced early on Friday morning.

One Conservative member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters he predicted his party would lose both seats by narrow margins to Labour.

Although the Conservatives 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 that the Conservatives faced “difficult headwinds” in trying to retain the seats because of the circumstances of the resignations.

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout; editing by Michael Holden)