LONDON — Polls opened in Britain on Thursday for two special elections that could deal another blow to scandal-ridden Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Wakefield in the north of England and the South West constituency of Tiverton and Honiton are both electing replacements for Tory lawmakers who resigned in disgrace. One was convicted of sexual assault; the other was caught watching pornography in the Commons bedroom – an episode he explained by saying he was looking for pictures of tractors on his phone.
A defeat in either district would be a setback for the Prime Minister’s party. Losing both would increase nervousness among wayward Tories who already worry the exuberant but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.
“For the Conservatives to lose a by-election on Thursday could be seen as unfortunate,” polling expert John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde wrote in the Independent newspaper. “However, losing two could look like much more than negligence – but a sign of a government that is in danger of losing its electoral base.”
Johnson was 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away from a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as voters headed to the polls.
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 increases as the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
Polls suggest Tiverton’s race is neck and neck between the conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said residents were “fed up with Boris Johnson’s lies and negligence”.
“Families are facing skyrocketing gas bills and food prices, and this government’s only response is to hammer them with constant tax hikes,” Davey said.
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 post-industrial northern towns where many residents have felt neglected by governments for decades,
Thursday’s election is a test of both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district which the Conservatives won in 2019 against the centre-left Labour.
Opinion polls suggest Labor is likely to win back Wakefield, which would give a boost to a party that has not been in power nationally since 2010. Labor leader Keir Starmer said that victory there “could be the birthplace of the next Labor government”.
Even if the Tories lose the two seats, Johnson retains a large majority in Parliament. But his crumbling authority among his own legislators would erode further.
Allegations about his judgment and ethics have rocked the Prime Minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns.
Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister convicted of breaking 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.
He survived a vote of no confidence from his own party this month but was weakened after 41% of Tory lawmakers voted to impeach him. Johnson could face another rebellion in the coming months.
Polling stations in both districts close at 10 p.m. (2100 GMT), with results expected early Friday.