CREDITON, England (AFP) — Beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered two crushing parliamentary by-election defeats on Friday, including in a southwest English seat previously held by his ruling Conservatives for more than a century, prompting the party’s chairman to quit.
In a stunning reversal, the Tories saw their December 2019 general election majority of more than 24,000 votes overturned by the centrist Liberal Democrats in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency.
At the same time, the main Labor opposition regained the Westminster seat of Wakefield, in northern England, in a further sign of its resurgence following the party’s worst electoral performance in decades two and a half years ago.
The disastrous outcomes for the Conservatives are set to pile new pressure on the embattled Johnson, as the highly damaging “Partygate” scandal involving lockdown-breaching gatherings in Downing Street continues to plague him and his party.
They had been tipped to lose both by-elections and Johnson had already vowed on Thursday — while in Rwanda for a Commonwealth summit — that he would not resign if that occurred.
But the dire results, the latest in a string of electoral defeats for the Tories in the last year, led to the immediate resignation of the party’s chairman, Oliver Dowden.
My letter of resignation to the Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/xd5MtM2o3n
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) June 24, 2022
“Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” the key Johnson ally wrote in a resignation letter to the Conservative leader.
“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.”
The votes were held Thursday after the two areas’ former Tory MPs both resigned in disgrace in recent months.
Tiverton and Honiton’s ex-lawmaker Neil Parish quit after admitting to watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons, while Wakefield’s Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
The by-elections also follow months of scandals and setbacks that have severely dented the popularity of Johnson and his party, and come just weeks after he narrowly survived an attempt by his own lawmakers to oust him as Tory leader and prime minister.
The Liberal Democrats won Tiverton and Honiton — parts of which have voted Conservative in every general election since the 1880s — by more than 6,000 votes.
The party, which has historically performed well in the southwest, appeared to benefit from tactical voting, with Labor’s vote share plunging nearly 16 percent.
Meanwhile, in Wakefield — one of dozens of traditional Labor seats that Johnson took in 2019 on a promise to “get Brexit done” and address glaring regional economic inequalities — the opposition party won by nearly 5,000 ballots.
Labor leader Keir Starmer, who is eyeing replacing Johnson as prime minister at the next general election due by 2024, said his party’s victory in one of its former heartland seats showed it could win back power for the first time in more than a decade.
“Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories,” he said in a statement, following Labor’s first by-election gain since 2012.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said his party has made “political history” with its win, which was a “wake-up call for all those Conservative MPs propping up Boris Johnson.”
Johnson has spent months fighting for his survival after a series of controversies. Various opinion polls have shown the public thinks he lied about COVID lockdown-breaking events at Downing Street and should resign.
Even before the controversy erupted last December, the 58-year-old Brexit architect saw the loss of two once-safe seats in by-elections last year. He then scored dismally in May’s local elections.
Weeks later, dozens of Conservative MPs triggered a no-confidence vote in Johnson which saw more than 40 percent of them desert their leader, leaving him severely weakened and struggling to reset his turbulent tenure.
Thursday’s polls came with Britain gripped by 40-year highs in inflation and a cost-of-living crisis that has seen prices soar for everyday essentials such as energy, gas and food.
Strikes this week by railway workers — including on election day — were some of the biggest seen in Britain in decades and have added to the sense of crisis.
Johnson, who travels to Germany and then Spain for G7 and NATO summits after his current visit to Rwanda, is not due back in Britain until late next week.