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Double whammy for Boris Johnson in the UK as he loses two key by-elections


Campaign posters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ahead of a key by-election called after Tory MP Imran Ahmed Khan was convicted of child molestation.

Daniel Harvey Gonzalez / In pictures via Getty Images

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double whammy at the polls as his party lost two key parliamentary by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton.

The votes, at opposite ends of England, had been seen as a litmus test of Johnson’s position after a series of scandals – including parties held in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns – and a cost crisis spiral life.

The double defeats prompted the immediate resignation of Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, whose resignation letter said party supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and that “someone needs to take responsibility”.

Wakefield

The main opposition Labor party has returned to its former stronghold seat of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, from Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party. Labor candidate Simon Lightwood beat Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes as the Conservatives recorded a 17.3 point drop in their vote share in the 2019 general election.

The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1932, with the town becoming one of 45 historically Labor voting seats that reversed in the last general election. The ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan and Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal were central to the campaign that tore down Labour’s ‘red wall’ in its traditional working-class heartland in 2019.

Johnson’s party entered Thursday’s Wakefield election with a slim 7.5 point majority.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008.

Labor leader Keir Starmer said the result showed the country “has lost faith in the Tories”.

Tiverton and Honiton

By contrast, the constituency of Tiverton and Honiton in Devon has historically been seen as a “safe” seat for the Conservatives, with the party winning 60% of the vote in 2019.

But the centrist Liberal Democrats, England’s third-largest party, clinched victory on Thursday to overthrow a Tory majority of more than 24,000 votes. Liberal Democrat candidate Richard Frood beat Conservative candidate Helen Hurford by more than 6,000 votes, registering a swing of almost 30%, one of the biggest partial election swings in British history.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish, who admitted watching pornography in Parliament.

The constituency had become the target of significant campaign resources for the Lib Dems, who hoped to replicate the 34-point swing that saw the party take North Shropshire from the Tories in December 2021.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey told the BBC the result was ‘a wake-up call for all those Tory MPs who support Boris Johnson’, adding that they ‘cannot afford to ignore this result’.

What now for Johnson?

Before polling stations closed in Wakefield and Tiverton, the Prime Minister dismissed the idea that he would quit if he lost the seats as ‘crazy’.

After Thursday’s results, he said he would “listen to voters” but pledged to “continue”, despite his apparent decline in electoral strength.

Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence among his own MPs earlier this month, after a damning report laid bare the extent of rule-breaking in Downing Street and the nearby government building in Whitehall during the pandemic.

Now, the by-election results and the swift resignation of party chairman Dowden are likely to increase the pressure on the beleaguered leader even more.

Voters’ main gripe appears to have been the ‘partygate’ scandal, which sparked national anger across political divides and saw Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak fined by police for breaking lockdown rules .

Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reported earlier this week that Tory campaign leaflets and adverts relating to by-elections in West Yorkshire and Devon had either omitted references to Johnson entirely or made them particularly rare.

Helen Hurford, the Tory candidate for Tiverton, was booed by voters at a town hall last week after dodging a question about the Prime Minister’s moral character.

Matt Singh, election analyst and founder of Number Cruncher Politics, pointed out in a tweet on Friday that the tactical vote to oust the Tories, rather than support Labor or the Liberal Democrats in particular, was a big factor in the result.

“Labour lost their deposit at Tiverton and won Wakefield on a decent swing. The Lib Dems lost their deposit at Wakefield and won on a huge swing at Tiverton. It’s an industry-wide tactical vote, and it’s a big deal,” Singh said.

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