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By-election results: Huge defeats suggest Tories are losing grip despite relief for Rishi Sunak in Uxbridge

Sir Keir Starmer has been unable to pull off double victory but still looks on course for No 10

Rishi Sunak will be breathing a small sigh of relief this morning after avoiding a hat-trick of by-election defeats in votes held on the last day of parliamentary term.

But while the Conservatives’ somewhat unexpected victory in Boris Johnson’s old seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, will be seized on by allies of the Prime Minister to insist he is turning the party’s fortunes around, massive defeats in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome suggest Mr Sunak is only heading one way – and that’s out of Downing Street.

The Tories clung on in the outer London seat of Uxbridge by just short of 500 votes after a campaign that focused heavily on attacking the capital Mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) scheme.

Even the Tories’ victorious candidate and now newest MP Steve Tuckwell described it as a “referendum on Ulez”, showing that local issues rather than national issues were front and centre of the campaign here.

Labour also had the strange effect of suffering from an incumbency factor with Mr Khan in City Hall.

The result does not therefore tell us too much about the national picture, but will no doubt lead to a potentially damaging split between Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Mr Khan over Ulez expansion, unless the Mayor himself has second thoughts for fear of losing his job in the next City Hall poll.

It will also give Sir Keir pause for thought on radical environmental policies and could shape the political battle over net zero.

But far more significant when trying to lead the morning tea leaves ahead of the next general election was Labour’s stunning victory in Selby.

Labour’s 25 year-old Keir Mather overturned a 20,137 to win in the North Yorkshire seat on a 23.7 percentage point swing – the second largest managed by the party in a by-election since 1945. The party also said it was the highest majority Labour had ever overturned in a by-election.

This was a Brexit-voting seat where Tories on the doorstep said immigration was one of the biggest factors raised but where the party’s voters seemingly lacked the enthusiasm to turn out and support Mr Sunak despite his Leave-tinged pledge to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel.

The constituency, and its predecessor, have been Tory for most of the last 40 years – bar three terms for Labour’s John Grogan – all of which coincided with Tony Blair’s three general election wins.

Meanwhile, there was another result reminiscent of the mid-90s in Somerton and Frome, where the Liberal Democrats defeated the Tories on a 29 percentage point swing, overturning a big majority of 19,213.

It means Sir Ed Davey became the first party leader since Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s to win four by-elections.

Those twin defeats for the Tories suggest it could be facing another 1990s-style drubbing in next year’s expected general election, although they will cling to the hope that voters who stayed at home rather than switching to Labour and the Lib Dems can be won back and force a closer outcome.

Sir Keir may also face a tougher battle maintaining party discipline after a bruising week internally following the Uxbridge disappointment.

Mr Johnson will meanwhile be wondering what could have been if he decided to stay on in Uxbridge and fight the by-election that would have been triggered by his Commons suspension over “Partygate”.

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