LONDON – Britain’s ruling Conservative Party lost two strategically important parliamentary seats in elections in the north and south on Thursday, dealing a hard blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and raising new doubts about his scandal-battered leadership.
Voters in Tiverton and Honiton, a rural part of south-west England that is the heart of the party, and in the faded industrial town of Wakefield ousted the Conservative party from seats that had become vacant after lawmakers were brought down by their own scandals.
In Wakefield, the Labor Party took a widely anticipated victory, by a comfortable margin over the Conservatives. In the south, seen as a throw-in, the Liberal Democratic Party achieved an even more impressive result, overcoming a huge Conservative majority in the last election to win the seat by a solid margin.
The double defeat is a sharp 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. It is likely to revive discussion on a new vote of no-confidence, although under current party rules, Johnson will not face another challenge until June next year.
In an immediate sign of the political fallout, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned Friday morning. In a letter to Mr Johnson less than two hours after the votes were counted, Mr Dowden said party supporters were “disturbed and disappointed by the recent events, and I share their feelings”, adding that “someone must take responsibility.”
Mr. Dowden’s letter emphatically professed his loyalty to the Conservative Party, rather than to its leader. But on Thursday, before the results were written down, Mr Johnson, who is attending a summit of Commonwealth leaders in Kigali, Rwanda, told the BBC that it would be “crazy” for him to resign even if the party were to cancel both elections. losses.
The defeats exposed Conservative vulnerabilities on two fronts: the so-called “red wall”, England’s industrial north, where Mr Johnson shattered a traditional Labor stronghold in the 2019 general election, and in the south west, a traditional Tory stronghold often called the “blue wall”.
It was the first double defeat for a ruling party in a by-election parliamentary election since 1991. And as bleak as the electoral prospects for the Conservatives look, they could deteriorate further next year, with inflation galloping, rate hikes and Britain almost certainly headed for a recession.
In Tiverton, where the Liberals won 53 percent of the vote and the Conservatives 38 percent, the victorious candidate, Richard Foord, said the result would “send a shockwave through British politics”.
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer said the victory in Wakefield, where Labor won 48 percent of the vote and the Conservatives 30 percent, “was a clear judgment of 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 legislator who resigned in disgrace. In Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish retired in April after admitting to watching pornography on his phone while in parliament. In Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan was sentenced to 18 months in prison in May after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager.
Khan’s legal troubles, including multiple failed attempts to have his case heard in secret, meant that Wakefield had no functioning representative in parliament for two years. As a result, people in the city became deeply disillusioned, analysts said, not only about Mr Khan but also about politics in general.
“The whole unfortunate situation is about a broken political system that ignores voters and their wishes and politicians not doing the right thing or serving the people who brought them to power,” said Wakefield Express editor Gavin Murray. “This point is reinforced 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 victory of Labor candidate Simon Lightwood suggested the party could compete successfully with the Conservatives. at the next general election.
The massive mood swings in Tiverton and Honiton, which the Conservatives had hoped to hold on to, was even more sobering for Johnson.
The Liberal Democrats’ sweeping victory in one of the Conservative Party’s safest districts suggested that even the most loyal Tory voters had become disenchanted with the serial scandals and non-stop drama surrounding the Prime Minister.
Last year, the Conservatives were stunned by the loss of a parliamentary seat in Chesham and Amersham, an affluent area northwest of London. Analysts said it suggested backlash against Johnson’s divisive politics and tax and spending policies.
The government has pledged to ‘raise’ and boost the economy in northern England, as a reward for voters on the red wall. But some analysts see significant risk of support breakdown among the traditional Tories in the south.
The Liberal Democrats specialize in fighting local issues in by-elections. They have a long history of achieving surprising results, and the success for them in Tiverton and Honiton confirmed the party’s strong performance in the local elections in May, where they also emerged as big winners.
In the days leading up to the two elections, Labor and the Liberal Democrats concentrated their resources in the districts they could win better at, one leaving the other freer.
Vince Cable, a former Liberal Democrat leader, said that rather than any official cooperation between the two sides, there was a “tacit agreement, relying on voters to arrive at a sensible outcome”.
“Since the economic outlook is so bad, especially for the next 12 to 18 months, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson did something very risky and went for fall elections,” said Mr. Cable at an election night briefing.
Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative Party chairman, said a defeat in Tiverton and Honiton would underline that “the position is quite bleak for the Conservative Party”, which won an 80-seat majority in the 2019 general election. .
“There is now a huge opportunity for the Liberal Democrats because neither the Labor Party nor the Conservative Party have any vision or strategy,” said Mr Baker, who is a member of the House of Lords. Johnson, he added, is now too polarizing a figure to lead the party successfully.
“If Boris continues to lead the Conservative Party,” he said, “there is no chance of the Conservatives gaining an overall majority.”