Double blow for Britain’s Boris Johnson as he lost two major by-elections

Campaign posters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ahead of a major by-election launched after Conservative MP Imran Ahmed Khan was found guilty of sexual assault of a minor.

Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/Pictures via Getty Images

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double whammy at the ballot box as his party lost key parliamentary by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton.

The votes, on opposite sides in England, have been seen as a critical test of Johnson’s standing after a series of scandals – including parties held in Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdowns – and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis.

The double defeats led to the immediate resignation of Conservative Party chief Oliver Dowden, whose resignation letter said the party’s supporters were “sad and disappointed by recent events” and that “someone must take responsibility”.

Wakefield

The main opposition Labor Party has taken back its former headquarters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, from Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party. Labor candidate Simon Lightwood defeated Conservative candidate Nadim Ahmed by 4,925 votes as the Conservative Party saw a 17.3-point drop in their share of the vote from the 2019 general election.

The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1932, as the city became one of the historic 45 voting seats Labor overturned in the last general election. The mantra of “End Brexit” and Johnson’s “Brexit-ready” deal were central to the campaign that destroyed Labor’s “red wall” at the heart of the traditional working class in 2019.

Johnson’s party entered Thursday’s Wakefield election with a slim majority of 7.5 points.

The by-election came after conservative MP Imran Ahmed Khan resigned after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008.

Labor leader Keir Starmer said the result showed the country had “lost confidence in the Conservative Party”.

Tiverton and Honiton

By contrast, the Tiverton and Honiton constituency in Devon is historically seen as a “safe” seat for the Conservatives, with the party winning 60% of the vote in 2019.

But the Center Liberal Democrats, England’s third-largest party, stormed to victory on Thursday to scrap a Conservative majority of more than 24,000 votes. Liberal Democrat candidate Richard Froud defeated Conservative candidate Helen Horford by more than 6,000 votes, recording a swing of nearly 30%, one of the biggest by-election swings in British history.

The by-election came due to the resignation of Conservative MP Neil Parrish, who has admitted to watching pornography in Parliament.

The constituency became the target of significant campaign resources for the Liberal Democrats, who had hoped to repeat the 34-point swing that saw the party wrest North Shropshire from the Conservatives in December 2021.

Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey told the BBC the result was a “wake-up call to all Conservative MPs who support Boris Johnson”, adding that they “couldn’t ignore this result”.

What now for Johnson?

Before the polls closed in Wakefield and Tiverton, the prime minister dismissed the idea that he would resign if he lost seats as “crazy”.

After Thursday’s results, he said he would “listen to voters” but vowed to “keep going”, despite the apparent decline in his electoral power.

Johnson narrowly escaped a confidence vote among his deputies earlier this month, after a damning report revealed the extent to which rules were violated in Downing Street and nearby Whitehall during the pandemic.

Now, the by-election results and the swift resignation of party chairman Dowden are likely to heighten tensions over the embattled leader.

The main problem for voters appears to have been the “Party Gateway” scandal, which sparked national outrage across political divisions and saw Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak receive police fines for breaching lockdown rules.

Britain’s The Telegraph reported earlier this week that Tory campaign posts and ads relating to by-elections in both West Yorkshire and Devon either omitted references to Johnson altogether, or made them noticeably rare.

Helen Horford, the Conservative candidate in Tiverton, was booed by city hall voters last week after dodging a question about the prime minister’s moral character.

Matt Singh, election analyst and founder of Number Cruncher Politics, highlighted in a Friday tweet that a tactical vote to oust the Conservatives, rather than support for Labor or the Liberal Democrats in particular, was an important factor in the outcome.

“Labour lost their deposits in Tiverton and Wakefield won on a good swing. The D-Democrats lost their deposits in Wakefield and won a huge swing in Tiverton. This is a tactical vote on an industrial scale, and it’s a big deal,” Singh said.

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