On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow, as voters in two special elections rejected his Conservative Party, putting further pressure on the British leader at a time when his own party seems to be moving away from him.
In the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, the centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a large Conservative majority, in what is considered to be one of the worst byelection results for the party in modern times.
On Friday morning the party’s chairman, Oliver Dowden, announced his resignation, saying the party “cannot carry on with business as usual.”
He added that: “somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
At the same time, the Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson’s Tories.
Tories have a bad night
Both contests were triggered by the resignations of Conservative lawmakers following sex scandals. However, the elections were dominated by questions about Johnson’s leadership and ethics, and came just weeks after 41% of his own MPs cast their ballots against him.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”
Losing both seats is likely to increase pressure among restive Conservatives, who are already concerned that Johnson is no longer an electoral asset for the party.
The electoral tests come as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and food staples at a time of soaring consumer demand.
Johnson was at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda on Thursday. He told reporters that he would not step down if the Conservatives lost both elections.
“Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in midterm,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”
On Friday, after the results were announced, Johnson said he will “listen” to voters but will “keep going”.
Still holding a big majority
Johnson won a big majority in a 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters — affluent, older and concentrated in southern England — and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern towns where many residents have felt overlooked by governments for decades.
Rural Tiverton and Honiton has voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from Labour.
Labour’s victory in Wakefield — whose previous Conservative legislator resigned after being convicted of sexual assault — is a boost to a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010.
Going into election day, pollsters had said the Tiverton and Honiton race was tight, but Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-vote Conservative majority to win by more than 6,000 votes.
Even with the defeats, Johnson hold a large majority in Parliament, but his authority among his own lawmakers has been deeply eroded.
Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending lockdown parties in government buildings, making him the first British prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. A civil servant’s report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.