The Conservatives have won the Hartlepool by-election – taking a seat that has been under Labour’s control since it was created in the 1970s.
Tory candidate Jill Mortimer’s victory marks a rare gain for a governing party and delivers another brick in Labour’s “red wall” to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
It also serves as a major blow to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in his bid to revive his party’s fortunes following their crushing general election defeat in 2019.
Sir Keir faced immediate calls to “urgently change direction” from Labour’s left wing following the result.
Ms Mortimer defeated Labour candidate Dr Paul Williams by 6,940 votes to deliver a comprehensive win for the Tories.
She described her by-election win as a “truly historic result and a momentous day”.
“Labour have taken people in Hartlepool for granted for too long,” the newly-elected MP said in her victory speech
“I heard this time and time again on the doorstep and people have had enough and now, through this result, the people have spoken and have made it clear it is time for change.”
Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling told Sky News the by-election result was a vindication of Mr Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda.
“By electing Jill she’ll be a stong voice in parliament for the people of Hartlepool working with the government to deliver for them,” she added.
Meanwhile, an inquest into the defeat began among Labour ranks, with one party source saying: “Labour has not yet changed nearly enough for voters to place their trust in us.
“We understand that. We are listening. And we will now redouble our efforts.”
Labour former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who is close to ex-party leader Jeremy Corbyn, said the Hartlepool result was a “crushing defeat” for her party.
“Not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result,” she posted on Twitter.
“Labour won the seat twice under his leadership. Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.”
Former Labour shadow minister Richard Burgon, another ally of Mr Corbyn, said the defeat was “incredibly disappointing”.
He posted on Twitter: “We are going backwards in areas we need to be winning. Labour’s leadership needs to urgently change direction.
“It should start by championing the popular policies in our recent manifestos – backed by a large majority of voters.”
And left-wing campaign group Momentum described the by-election result as a “disaster” for Labour.
“The leadership are reacting to this disaster by promising ‘more change’ – but over the last year we’ve gone backwards,” they posted on Twitter.
“It’s time to change direction, not double down on a failed strategy.
“In order to rebuild, the leadership must build a coalition with the left on transformative policy, return to community organising, and empower members to shape the future of our party.”
However, allies of Sir Keir pushed back amid the criticism from Labour’s left wing.
Shadow communities and local government secretary Steve Reed told Sky News the Hartlepool defeat was “shattering”.
But he insisted there was no need to ditch Sir Keir as party leader after just over a year of him being at the helm.
“For the first time in many years, actually, we have a leader that people can see as an alternative prime minister,” he said.
“What they don’t yet understand is, is Labour different from the Labour that they comprehensively rejected in December 2019? That job of work has not yet been done.”
He added: “People know the leader has changed but, from speaking to people on the doorsteps myself, they don’t know that the Labour Party has changed.
“Because, to be frank, it hasn’t changed enough.”
Mr Reed said the COVID pandemic had “in part” hindered Sir Keir’s efforts to establish himself with voters.
The party’s shadow schools minister, Wes Streeting, also backed Sir Keir. He tweeted: “Our leadership has changed for the better, but the voters aren’t convinced that Labour has too.
“This is a huge and urgent task. Keir gets it. So must we.”
Hartlepool had been a Labour constituency since its creation in 1974 and remained under the party’s control at the 2019 general election even as other bricks in their “red wall” crumbled.
But, prior to polling day, the Conservatives had been hopeful of pulling off a victory in the by-election – which was prompted by the resignation of ex-MP Mike Hill ahead of an employment tribunal – following the collapse in support for the Brexit Party since 2019.
At the general election, the Brexit Party had taken a close third place in Hartlepool behind the Tories.
The Hartlepool by-election is one of a number of results expected over the coming days following “Super Thursday”, with voters going to the polls in England, Scotland and Wales.