UK by-elections: Johnson suffers blow as Tories lose two seats

Polls in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton were first since prime minister narrowly survived a vote of confidence this month.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference in response to the publication of the Sue Gray report Into "Partygate", at
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under heavy pressure to resign in recent weeks [File: Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters]

The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party has been defeated in two parliamentary by-elections, in losses that dealt a blow to the leadership of embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson and prompted the resignation of the party’s chairman.

The polls on Thursday in the West Yorkshire seat of Wakefield and the South West seat of Tiverton and Honiton were the first since Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence this month, in which 41 percent of his parliamentary colleagues voted to remove him.

The Conservatives lost a majority of more than 24,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, in a deeply Conservative part of England’s South West, defeated by the centrist Liberal Democrats who secured a majority of more than 6,000. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in Northern England.

The losses suggest the electoral coalition Johnson brought together at the 2019 national election may be fracturing while increasing jitters among restive Conservatives who already worry the ebullient but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.

Johnson has come under intense pressure to resign after he was fined for breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules after a police investigation into gatherings at his Downing Street offices.

Following the losses in Tiverton and Honiton, and Wakefield, Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying things had to change in the party. The contests were triggered by the high-profile resignations of Conservative politicians – one who admitted watching pornography in parliament, and another found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

“Yesterday’s parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” Dowden said in a resignation letter to Johnson.

“We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”

Although under his party’s rules he cannot be challenged with a no-confidence motion for another year, MPs fearing for their own futures may decide to reduce the grace period to bring about another vote.

On Friday, Johnson said he would listen to voters, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, but pledged to “keep going”.

Labour party candidate Simon Lightwood
The winner of the Wakefield by-election, Labour party candidate Simon Lightwood [Phil Noble/Reuters]

The Liberal Democrats said their win at Tiverton and Honiton was the biggest ever majority to be overturned at a British parliamentary by-election, suggesting that other Conservative politicians may be at risk of losing their seats in the party’s southern heartlands.

Winning candidate Richard Foord said in his victory speech that Johnson should “go, and go now”.

“With every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect,” he said.

Johnson on Thursday rejected the suggestion that he could resign if the Conservatives lost both seats, saying it was common for governing parties to lose mid-term by-elections.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement the result in Wakefield was “a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas”.

“Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories,” he said, referring to the Conservative Party.

Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest majority in three decades at the 2019 national election, winning praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labour-voting areas in north and central England.

However, the loss of Wakefield could indicate that his ability to win again in these areas at the next national election, expected in 2024, has also been compromised.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies