UK Conservative Party chairman quits after crushing by-election defeats
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party was defeated in two by-elections on Friday, sparking the resignation of the party chairman and new speculation about the future of Britain’s embattled leader.
The losses – one in the traditional southern heart of the Conservatives and in a seat in Northern England won in the latest Labor elections – suggest that the electoral coalition that Johnson brought together in the 2019 national elections is breaking down .
Johnson’s transformation from vote-winner to electoral accountability could prompt lawmakers to turn against him again after months of scandal over shutdowns and amid a growing cost of living crisis.
Johnson has come under intense pressure to resign after he was fined for violating the Covid-19 lockdown rules following a police investigation into gatherings at his Downing Street offices.
This month he survived a confidence vote from conservative lawmakers, even though 41% of his parliamentary colleagues voted against him, and he is being investigated by a committee as to whether he deliberately misled parliament.
After the losses at Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying things had to change in the party.
“Yesterday’s parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a string of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are saddened and disappointed by the recent events, and I share their feelings,” Dowden said in a resignation letter to Johnson.
“We cannot continue as normal. Someone has to take responsibility and I have concluded that under these circumstances it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
While he cannot be challenged with a no-confidence vote for another year under his party’s rules, lawmakers fearing for their own future may decide to shorten the grace period to secure a new vote.
The Conservatives lost a majority of more than 24,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, in a highly conservative part of south-west England, defeated by the centrist Liberal Democrats who gained a majority of more than 6,000.
The Liberals said it was the largest-ever majority destroyed in a British parliamentary by-election, suggesting other Conservative lawmakers risk losing their seats in the southern heart of the party.
Winning Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord said in his victory speech that Johnson should “go, and go now”.
“Every day Boris Johnson clings to office brings more shame, chaos and neglect,” he said.
Johnson on Thursday rejected the suggestion that he could resign if the Conservatives lose both seats, saying it was common for ruling parties to lose midterm elections.
In Wakefield’s separate parliamentary seat in northern England, the opposition Labor party also defeated the Conservatives.
“Wakefield has shown that the country has lost faith in the Tories. This result is a clear judgment of a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas,” Labor leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest majority in three decades in the 2019 national elections, receiving praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labor voting areas in northern and central England.
However, Wakefield’s loss could indicate that his ability to win again in these areas in the next national election, expected in 2024, has also been jeopardized.
The by-elections were sparked by high-profile resignations from conservative lawmakers — one who admitted to watching pornography in parliament, and another found guilty of sexually abusing a teenage boy.