Wellingborough contest to provide early test for Sunak in election year

The Tories will “fight for every vote” as Rishi Sunak battles to avoid another by-election humiliation after Peter Bone’s voters ousted him from the Commons.

The disgraced former Conservative MP was ejected after more than 10% of voters in his Wellingborough seat voted to recall him.

The recall petition was triggered when Mr Bone was handed a six-week suspension from the House of Commons after an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

The result in Wellingborough will be an early test for the Tories and Labour ahead of the general election expected in 2024.

The Tories will decide when to start the by-election process after the Commons returns in January.

Mr Bone had been sitting as an independent after losing the Conservative whip in the aftermath of the ruling.

He held the Northamptonshire seat in 2019 with a majority of 18,540 over Labour, but the Tories have suffered a series of by-election defeats in recent years, including in constituencies which were theoretically safer.

Wellingborough has been held by the Conservatives since 2005, when Mr Bone won it from Labour.

The majority is smaller than the Tory cushions in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire which fell to Sir Keir Starmer’s party in October.

Cabinet minister Mel Stride said it would be “foolhardy” to say the Conservatives will definitely retain the seat.

But he claimed Labour’s national poll lead of about 20 percentage points is “wafer thin” in terms of how strong it is, with no real desire among voters for Sir Keir to become the new prime minister.

The Work and Pensions Secretary told Times Radio: “Yes, we have a fair bit of ground to make up but there is no strong burning passion for Keir Starmer or another Labour government.

“There is a wide lead in the polls at the moment but it’s very thin.

“And we will be fighting for every single vote.”

On Sky News he said there is “all to play for” and “we will go at it has hard as we possibly can”.

Gen Kitchen, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Wellingborough, said the recall petition outcome shows that constituents “want change”.

Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth visited the seat on Wednesday and said voters want “a fresh start” but insisted the party is “taking nothing for granted” in Wellingborough.

Asked if the contest will be a litmus test ahead of the general election, the shadow paymaster general told the PA news agency: “I think across the country people will say it’s time for change.

“They will look at 13, 14 years of the Conservatives and feel, like, what have they got in return for all the extra tax they are paying? Their mortgages have gone up, the NHS is on its knees, we’ve got schools across the country with roofs falling in.

“I think people want a change, and they’re looking to Labour.”

At the conclusion of the six-week Wellingborough recall process, North Northamptonshire Council said 10,505 people agreed that Mr Bone should lose his job as their MP.

The by-election threshold had been set at 7,904 people – a tenth of the 79,046 eligible voters in his constituency.

A date for the by-election has not been set but rules around parliamentary procedure mean it will not take place before February.

In a statement published on social media, Mr Bone said having a by-election seems “bizarre” because “86.8% of the electorate did not want to remove me from office, nor for there to be a by-election” – a reference to the constituents who did not sign the petition.

The veteran politician, who has been spotted in Westminster in recent days, said the allegations against him are “totally untrue and without foundation”.

Mr Bone was found to have “committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct” against a staff member in 2012 and 2013.

Parliament’s behaviour watchdog, the Independent Expert Panel, upheld an earlier investigation which found he broke the MPs’ code of conduct on four counts of bullying and one of sexual misconduct.

The panel found that he had indecently exposed himself to the complainant in the bathroom of a hotel room during a work trip to Madrid.

Mr Bone has repeatedly denied the allegations and said in his statement on Tuesday that he will “have more to say on these matters in the new year”.

The former minister was kicked out of the Tory parliamentary party a day after the report was published on October 16.

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