Nigel Farage the leader of Britain's Brexit Party poses for photographers before delivering a letter addressed to "The Prime Minister" asking for the Brexit Party to be included in Brexit negotiations with the European Union (EU) outside 10 Downing Street in London. Image Credit: AP

London: The main UK opposition Labour Party unexpectedly held onto its Peterborough seat, slowing the march of Nigel Farage’s new pro-Brexit movement which bookmakers’ had expected to win Thursday’s by-election.

The result will alarm members of the UK’s ruling Conservatives — who were beaten into third place by Farage’s Brexit Party — as they weigh up who should take over from Theresa May, who steps down as party leader on Friday.

Tories will look at the Peterborough result and see how the Brexit Party took votes away from them, allowing Labour to win — even though the district’s disgraced previous Labour MP was sent to jail.

While the individual result is no predictor of a general election outcome, it is a scenario that’s likely to raise fears it could be replayed the next time the country chooses a new government. That will focus Conservatives’ minds on choosing a leader who can defeat the dual threats of Farage and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Farage’s party launched just two months ago with a single policy goal — to take the UK out of the European Union quickly, without a deal. He said the result piled pressure on the contenders to succeed May, warning that if the Tories don’t lead the UK out of the EU by the Halloween deadline, they will reap the consequences.

“If we don’t leave and leave with a clean Brexit on October 31, the Brexit Party will power on,” Farage told BBC radio. “Whichever way you cut it, we’ve come from nowhere, produced a massive result, we haven’t quite got over the line, but we’re pretty buoyed by this.”

Yet the result was a disappointment for Farage’s supporters. The Brexit Party had been expected to win the seat, after coming top in last month’s European Parliament elections amid a voter backlash against the established political heavyweights.

Both Labour and the Tories were bracing for Farage’s success to continue amid public frustration at Parliament’s failure to deliver Brexit, in a city which voted 61 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

Farage said the Conservatives had split the pro-Brexit vote in Peterborough and his party had failed to win because it had faced the “might” of the Labour Party election machine.

Lisa Forbes took 30.9 per cent of the vote in the eastern English city, the Brexit Party candidate won 28.9 per cent. The Conservatives won just 21.4 per cent in a district the party held until two years ago.

“The fact that the Brexit Party have been rejected here in Peterborough shows that the politics of division will not win,” Forbes said.

For May, losing a seat her party won as recently as 2015 was the final blow before she steps down as Tory leader later on Friday. She will remain as caretaker prime minister until a new leader is chosen, a process expected to be completed by the end of July. Contenders in the Tory leadership race used the Peterborough result to try to bolster their own campaigns.

“The Peterborough by-election shows our real opponent is Jeremy Corbyn,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock — one of the leadership candidates — wrote on Twitter. “We need to deliver Brexit then turn the page with a fresh face and concentrate on all the other things that matter to people.”

The by-election was triggered after Labour’s Fiona Onasanya, who won the seat from the Conservatives by just 607 votes in 2017, was jailed for lying about a speeding ticket. Voters removed her in a recall petition, the first time the procedure had been used.