LONDON – Britain’s ruling Conservative Party lost two strategically important parliamentary seats on Friday, dealing a severe blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and raising new doubts about his scandal-ridden leadership.
Voters in Tiverton and Honiton, rural south-west England, the party’s heartland, and in the faded industrial town of Wakefield to the north, drove the Conservative Party out of seats vacated after lawmakers were overthrown by scandals of their own.
In Wakefield, the Labor Party’s victory was widely expected and they secured a comfortable lead over the Conservatives. In the South, seen as a tossup, the Liberal Democratic Party pulled off a stunning upset, overcoming a large Conservative majority in the last election and winning the seat by a solid margin.
The double defeat after Thursday’s general election is a sharp rebuke from Mr Johnson, who earlier this month survived a no-confidence vote in his party sparked by a scandal surrounding illegal Downing Street parties during the coronavirus pandemic. It will likely reignite talk of another no-confidence vote, although under the party’s current rules, Mr Johnson should not face another challenge until next June.
In an immediate sign of the political fallout, Conservative Party leader Oliver Dowden resigned on Friday morning. In a letter sent to Mr Johnson less than two hours after the votes were counted, Mr Dowden said the party’s supporters were “troubled and disappointed by recent events and I share their feelings”, adding, that someone has to take responsibility. ”
Mr. Dowden’s letter made a show of loyalty to the Conservative Party and not to its leader. But on Thursday, before the results were tabulated, Mr Johnson, who is attending a summit of Commonwealth leaders in Kigali, Rwanda, told the BBC it would be “crazy” if he resigned, even if the party held both elections would lose.
The defeats exposed Conservative weaknesses on two fronts: the so-called ‘red wall’, England’s industrial north, where Mr Johnson destroyed a traditional Labor stronghold in the 2019 general election, and in the south-west, a traditional Tory stronghold that is often is called the “blue wall”.
It was the first double defeat by a ruling party in a parliamentary by-election since 1991. And as bleak as the electoral outlook for the Conservatives looks, it could deteriorate further next year, with runaway inflation, interest rate hikes and Britain almost certainly in recession.
In Tiverton, where the Liberal Democrats won 53 per cent of the vote to 39 per cent for the Conservatives, winning candidate Richard Foord said the result would send “a shockwave through British politics”. Party leader Ed Davey called it “the biggest by-election win our country has ever seen.”
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer said the victory in Wakefield, where Labor received a solid 48 per cent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 30 per cent, was “a clear verdict on a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas”.
Although the political contours of the two districts are very different, they share a common element: a Conservative lawmaker who has fallen out of favor and has resigned. In Tiverton and Honiton, Neil resigned Parish in April after admitting he had seen pornography on his mobile phone while sitting in Parliament. In Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan was sentenced to 18 months in prison in May after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenager.
Mr Khan’s legal troubles, which included several unsuccessful efforts to have his case heard in secret, meant Wakefield was without a functioning representative in Parliament for two years. That has left people in the city deeply disillusioned, analysts said, not just with Mr Khan but with politics in general.
“The whole unfortunate situation is about a broken political system that ignores voters and their desires and politicians who are not doing the right thing or serving the people who put them in power,” said Gavin Murray, editor of Wakefield Express. “This point is reinforced and exaggerated by the behavior of Boris and Downing Street.”
While there was little expectation that the Conservatives would hold the Wakefield seat, the magnitude of Labor candidate Simon Lightwood’s victory suggested the party could successfully run against the Conservatives at the next general election.
Even more sobering for Mr Johnson was the massive swing in votes in Tiverton and Honiton, a normally safe Conservative district where the party had hoped to hold its own. It suggested that even the most loyal Tory voters were disillusioned with the serial scandals and never-ending drama surrounding the Prime Minister.
Last year the Conservatives were stunned by the loss of seats in Chesham and Amersham, a wealthy north-west London borough. Analysts said it pointed to a backlash against Mr Johnson’s divisive policies and tax and spending policies.
The government has promised to ‘level’ and boost the economy in the north of England, a reward for Red Wall voters. However, some analysts see a significant risk of shattering support among traditional Tories in the South.
The Liberal Democrats specialize in fighting on local issues in by-elections. They have a long history of surprising results and their successes in Tiverton and Honiton cemented the party’s strong showing in May’s local elections, from which they were also big winners.
In the days leading up to the two elections, both Labor and the Liberal Democrats focused their resources on the districts they were better placed to win, leaving each other freer choice.
Vince Cable, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that instead of official cooperation between the two parties, there was a “tacit understanding of relying on voters to reach a reasonable outcome”.
“Because the economic outlook is so poor, certainly for the next 12 to 18 months, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson did something very risky and went for elections in the fall,” Mr. Cable said at an election night briefing.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a party that just two and a half years ago won an 80-seat majority in Parliament on Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done”.
“The Liberal Democrats have a great opportunity now because neither the Labor Party nor the Conservative Party have any vision or strategy,” said Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative Party leader who is a member of the House of Lords. Mr Johnson, he added, is now too polarizing a figure to lead the party successfully.
“If the Conservative Party continues to be led by Boris,” he said, “the Conservatives have no chance of winning an overall majority.”
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