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The UK’s ruling Conservatives are bracing for a beating of voters in three special elections

LONDON (AP) — Voters went to the polls in three constituencies of England on Thursday, with the ruling Conservative Party bracing for a beating over a cost-of-living crisis and a string of political scandals that are sapping morale.

The elections for seats in the House of Commons are closely watched as they allow voters in three different parts of England – a small town in the north, the rural south-west and the London suburbs – to pass judgment on the party that has ruled Britain since 2010 ahead of national elections due next year.

Three polls this week gave the left-wing Labor Party a lead of at least 15 points over the Conservatives across the country.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told conservative lawmakers the three by-elections would be an “uphill battle” but said he still believed the party could win the next general election.

“I promise we can do this, but we can only do it together as one team,” he told the troublesome Conservative caucus on Wednesday night.

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The special election is part of the still-ripping shockwaves from ex-leader Boris Johnson’s turbulent term. He stepped down as a lawmaker last month, nearly a year after stepping down as prime minister, when a standards watchdog concluded he had lied to parliament about law-breaking parties in his office during the coronavirus pandemic.

One ally followed Johnson out the door, and another legislator has resigned amid allegations of sex and drugs, leading to three midterm elections.

Labor hopes to win Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in suburban London, as well as the Selby and Ainsty mixed constituency vacated by Johnson ally Nigel Adams in northern England. The centrist Liberal Democrats are favored to win in South West England’s Somerton and Frome, where Conservative lawmaker David Warburton dropped out over allegations of cocaine use and sexual misconduct.

Labor leader Keir Starmer will come under pressure himself if the party fails to win Johnson’s old seat, where the Conservatives are targeting a divisive local issue: a levy to reduce pollution on older petrol and diesel vehicles, introduced by London Labor mayor Sadiq Khan.

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A trio of Conservative defeats would increase grumbling that Sunak is failing to reverse the party’s fate after the chaos caused by the scandal-ridden Johnson. The last time a governing party lost three by-elections in one day was in 1968 under Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Sunak became prime minister after being elected leader of the ruling party in October. He inherited an economy that was reeling from the short-term ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss, who stepped down after six weeks in office when her tax-cut economic plans drove up the cost of government borrowing and hammered the pound.

That exacerbated a cost-of-living crisis, with the Bank of England raising its central interest rate to 5% at 13 consecutive meetings, in an attempt to curb inflation which is falling but remained at a still high 7.9% in the year to June. Four in 10 renters say they are struggling to pay rent and millions of homeowners are facing sharp increases in their mortgage payments.

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The rising cost of living has prompted hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, including doctors and nurses, to strike, adding further strain to the overburdened public healthcare system.

Poor results in Thursday’s vote could prompt Sunak to shake up his government as early as Friday with a cabinet shuffle – currently scheduled for September.

Polls in the three areas close at 10pm (2100GMT), with results expected early Friday.

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