LONDON – Britain’s ruling Conservative Party lost two strategically important parliamentary seats on Friday, dealing a heavy blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and raising new doubts about his scandal-ridden leadership.
Voters in Tiverton and Honiton, a rural area in southwest England that is the party’s stronghold, and in the drab northern industrial town of Wakefield cleared the Conservative Party of seats that opened after lawmakers were brought down by scandals of their own.
In Wakefield, a Labor victory was widely expected, and it delivered a comfortable victory over the Conservatives. In the South, which was seen as a fiasco, the Liberal Democrats scored a stunning upset, beating a large majority of Conservatives in the last election to win the seat by a solid margin.
The double defeat after Thursday’s election is a scathing rebuke to Mr Johnson, who survived a vote of no-confidence in his party earlier this month precipitated by a scandal over illegal parties held in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic. That is likely to revive talk of another no-confidence vote, although under the party’s current rules, Johnson should not face another challenge until next June.
In an immediate indication of the political fallout, the Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, resigned on Friday morning. In a letter to Mr Johnson less than two hours after the votes were counted, Mr Dowden said party supporters were “sad and disappointed by recent events, and I share their sentiments”, adding that “someone must take responsibility.”
Mr Dowden’s letter clearly declared his allegiance to the Conservative Party, not to its leader. But on Thursday, before the results were scheduled, Johnson, who was attending a Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Kigali, Rwanda, told the BBC that it would be “crazy” for him to resign, even if the party lost both elections.
The defeats exposed the Conservatives’ weaknesses on two fronts: the so-called ‘red wall’, industrial north of England, where Mr Johnson smashed Labor’s traditional stronghold in the 2019 general election, and in the southwest, it was often called the ‘blue wall’ traditional Tory stronghold. .
It was the first double defeat for a ruling party in a parliamentary by-election since 1991. As grim as the Conservative’s electoral prospects seem, it could get worse next year, with accelerating inflation, rising interest rates and Britain almost certainly heading. for slack.
In Tiverton, where the Liberal Democrats won 53 percent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 39 percent, the winning candidate, Richard Forward, said the result would send “a shock wave through British politics”. The party’s leader, Ed Davey, called it “the biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen.”
Labor leader Keir Starmer said the victory in Wakefield, where Labor won 48 per cent of the vote to the Conservatives 30 per cent, was “a clear verdict on the Conservative party running out of energy and ideas”.
While the two counties’ political lines are very different, they do share a common element: a conservative lawmaker who resigned in disgrace. At Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parrish resigned in April after admitting to viewing pornography on his phone while sitting in Parliament. In Wakefield, Imran Ahmed Khan was sentenced to 18 months in prison in May after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
Mr Khan’s legal troubles, which included several failed efforts to have his case heard in secret, meant that Wakefield had not had an effective representative in Parliament for two years. Analysts said this has left people in the city deeply disappointed, not just about Mr Khan but about 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 brought them to power,” said Gavin Murray, editor of the Wakefield Express. “This point has been amplified and exaggerated by the behavior of Boris and Downing Street.”
While there was little expectation that the Conservatives would retain the Wakefield seat, the scale of the Labor candidate’s victory, Simon Lightwood, suggested the party could successfully challenge the Conservatives. in the next general election.
The massive swing in votes in Tiverton and Honiton, a usually safe conservative district where the party hoped to retain, was more realistic for Mr Johnson. She noted that even the most conservative voters of the Conservative Party are becoming frustrated with the serial scandals and ongoing drama surrounding the prime minister.
Last year, the Conservatives were stunned by losing a parliamentary seat in Chesham and Amersham, an affluent area northwest of London. Analysts said it indicated a backlash against Johnson’s divisive brand of politics, tax and spending policies.
The government has promised to “raise the bar” and boost the economy in northern England, a bonus to “red wall” voters. But some analysts see a high risk of eroding support among traditional conservatives in the south.
The Liberal Democrats specialize in fighting over domestic issues in by-elections. They have a long history of surprising results, and their successes at Tiverton and Honiton underpinned the party’s strong performance in local elections in May, where they also emerged as the big winners.
In the days leading up to the election, both the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats concentrated their resources in the districts they were best placed to win, leaving each other a freer hand.
Vince Cable, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that rather than any formal bipartisan cooperation, there was “a tacit understanding, dependent on voters to reach a reasonable outcome.”
“Because the economic outlook is so bad, certainly for the next 12 to 18 months, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson did something so risky and run in the fall election,” Cable said at an election eve news briefing.
It is a remarkable reversal of wealth for a party that won an 80-seat majority in parliament just two and a half years ago thanks to the strength of Mr Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done”.
“There is a huge opportunity for the Liberal Democrats now because neither Labor nor the Conservative Party have any vision or strategy whatsoever,” said Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative leader who is a member of the House of Lords. He added that Mr Johnson was now too polarized to lead the party successfully.
“If the Conservative Party continues to lead Boris, there is no chance of the Conservatives winning an overall majority,” he said.