British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing renewed questions about his leadership following the Conservative Party’s poor showing in a pair of by-elections on Thursday and the sudden resignation of a cabinet minister who served as the party’s co-chair.
The Conservatives lost both seats in the by-elections and the results painted a worrying picture for Mr. Johnson. The party got trounced by the Liberal Democrats in a traditionally Conservative riding and came a distant second to Labour in a seat the Tories had snatched from Labour in 2019 as part of a major breakthrough in northern England.
The defeats prompted Oliver Dowden, the co-chair, to resign Friday morning. “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” Mr. Dowden said in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister. “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.”
Mr. Johnson played down the results and said he had no intention of stepping down. “Look, as I say, you see historically in the last 50 years, more, you’ve seen governments being punished at the polls during midterm, when people are particularly feeling economic pressures. And I totally get that,” he said Friday. “I think that what we’ve got is the right way forward. And I think that, actually, we are able to support people because of the decisions that we took; I think coming out of COVID, we took a lot of the right decisions.”
Few Conservatives expected to win the by-elections since both sitting Members of Parliament had resigned because of scandals. But the final tally on Thursday made for grim reading.
In Tiverton and Honiton, a rural riding in southwest England that had been a Tory stronghold, the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000 vote majority the Conservative candidate won in the 2019 general election. The result was the largest swing ever in a British by-election and it marked the first time the region had not elected a Conservative in a century.
In Wakefield, in northern England, Labour easily won back a seat that the party had held since 1932. Wakefield was one of 45 “Red Wall” ridings the Conservatives took from Labour in 2019 in a series of upset victories that helped hand Mr. Johnson an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Back in 2019, there was a sense that Mr. Johnson’s strong support of Brexit had won over many traditional Labour voters and reshaped politics across the country. That now appears in doubt as voters seem to be turned off by Mr. Johnson, who has been mired in recent months regarding a controversy concerning 16 parties his office held in 2020 and 2021 when the country was in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Johnson has been fined £50 by the police for attending one party and an internal report by a senior civil servant has levelled sharp criticism for how Downing Street is managed. A parliamentary committee is also continuing to probe the parties and whether Mr. Johnson lied to parliament.
The scandal prompted Conservative MPs to hold a leadership review earlier this month. He received the backing of a majority of MPs but 148, or 40 per cent of the caucus, voted for him to resign. Some of the rebels are now pushing for a second ballot on his leadership.
The by-election results “are hugely undermining for Johnson,” said Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds. “Johnson isn’t dead in the water yet, but he is in a very precarious position.”
Dr. Honeyman added that many Tory MPs have supported Mr. Johnson because of his track record at winning elections. “They have concluded, and this is an argument Johnson himself has made, that Johnson helps them win, and therefore he can be forgiven almost everything else,” she said. “The result in Wakefield suggests that the Tories might lose some of those new seats they gained in the 2019 election.”
The loss in Tiverton also “shows that the party is losing traditional, long-standing Tory voters,” she said. “That is an incredibly dangerous mix – you can’t keep your new supporters and you can’t keep your traditional voters either.”
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, said that while the Tiverton result will panic Tories, the Wakefield loss was more important.
“If anyone’s actually going to unseat the Conservatives at the next election, it’s going to be Labour,” he said. “If they can repeat that performance in 2024, then, even if they don’t get an overall majority, it’ll be enough to see them emerge as the biggest party.”
Mr. Johnson does still have time to turn things around. The next general isn’t due for a couple of years. “Voters are quite short sighted when they look backwards,” said Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “They don’t necessarily grind their axes massively about things that happened two or three years ago.” However, Dr. Ford said that while the party’s fortunes could recover, it will be likely be harder with Mr. Johnson at the helm.
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