Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double whammy on Thursday as voters in two special elections rejected his Conservative party, putting further pressure on the British leader at a time when his own party appears to be drifting away from him.
In the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, the centrist Liberal Democrats overthrew a large Tory majority, in what is seen as one of the worst by-election results for the party in modern times .
On Friday morning, party chairman Oliver Dowden announced his resignation, saying the party “cannot carry on as business as usual”.
He added that “someone has to take responsibility and I have come to the conclusion that in these circumstances it would not be right for me to stay on.”
At the same time, Labor reclaimed Wakefield, in the north of England, from Johnson’s Conservatives.
Conservatives are having a bad night
Both contests were sparked by the resignations of conservative lawmakers over sex scandals. However, the election was dominated by questions about Johnson’s leadership and ethics, and came just weeks after 41% of his own MPs voted against him.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken on behalf of Britain,” said newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for the area, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: it’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and to go now.”
The loss of the two seats is likely to increase pressure among restive Tories, who already fear that Johnson is no longer an electoral asset for the party.
The election tests come as Britain faces its worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and basic foodstuffs at a time when demand of consumers is skyrocketing.
Johnson was at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda on Thursday. He told reporters he would not resign if the Conservatives lost both elections.
“Governing parties usually don’t win by-elections, especially at midterm,” he said. “It’s just the reality.”
On Friday, after the results were announced, Johnson said he would “listen” to voters but would “carry on.”
Still largely in the majority
Johnson won a large majority in the 2019 general election by keeping traditional Tory voters – affluent, older and concentrated in the south of England – and winning new ones in poorer northern post-industrial towns where many residents have felt neglected by governments for decades.
Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district which the Conservatives won in 2019 from Labour.
Labor’s victory in Wakefield – whose former Tory lawmaker resigned after being convicted of sexual assault – is a boost for a party that has not been in power nationally since 2010.
Before Election Day, pollsters had said the race in Tiverton and Honiton was close, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of 24,000 votes to win by more than 6,000 votes.
Even with the defeats, Johnson holds 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 at government buildings, making him the first British prime minister to break the law while in office. A civil servant’s report into the ‘partygate’ scandal said Johnson must take responsibility for the ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.