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Boris Johnson under pressure: Britain’s Conservative Party loses 2 parliamentary seats

Written by Javed Iqbal

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The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative party in two special elections dominated by questions of his leadership and ethics.

The party’s chairman stopped after the results early Friday, saying the party “can not continue with business as usual”.

The center-right Liberal Democrats toppled a large Conservative majority to win seat in the south west of England of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labor party recaptured Wakefield in the north of England from Johnson’s Tories.

In this photo issued by the British Parliament, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson will address the Prime Minister's question in the House of Commons, London, on Wednesday 18 May 2022.

In this photo issued by the British Parliament, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson will address the Prime Minister’s question in the House of Commons, London, on Wednesday 18 May 2022.
(Jessica Taylor / British Parliament via AP)

The contests, triggered by the resignation of conservative lawmakers plagued by sex scandals, allowed voters to pass their verdict on the prime minister just weeks after 41% of his own MPs voted to oust him.

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“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go and go now.”

Defeats in both districts would have been a setback for the Prime Minister’s party. Losing both increases nervousness among reluctant conservatives, who are already worried about the bubbly but erratic and divisive Johnson, is no longer an election active.

Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying “our supporters are saddened and disappointed by the recent events and I share their feelings.”

“We can not continue with business as usual,” he said. “Someone must take responsibility, and I have concluded that in these circumstances it would not be right for me to remain in office.”

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In this image provided by the British Parliament, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson speaks as members of the opposition party's gesture during the Prime Minister's question in the House of Commons, in London, on Wednesday 12 January 2022.

In this image provided by the British Parliament, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson speaks as members of the opposition party’s gesture during the Prime Minister’s question in the House of Commons, in London, on Wednesday 12 January 2022.
(British Parliament / Jessica Taylor via AP)

“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said without giving his support to Johnson.

The Prime Minister was 4,000 miles away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the results was announced.

He told reporters Thursday that he would not resign if the Conservatives lost both elections, responding to the proposal with, “Are you crazy?”

“Government parties generally do not win by-elections, especially not mid-term,” he said. “It’s just the reality.”

The elections are coming, while Britain is facing the worst cost of living crisis in a generation where Russia’s war in Ukraine is squeezing energy and food supplies at a time of rising consumer demand as the coronavirus pandemic declines.

Johnson won a large majority in a 2019 parliamentary election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters – wealthy, elderly and concentrated in the south of England – and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern cities, where many residents felt neglected by governments for decades.

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Thursday’s election was a test on both fronts. Rural areas Tiverton and Honiton have voted conservatively for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from Labor.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson will deliver a speech on Russia's attack on Ukraine in Downing Street, London, on Thursday 24 February 2022.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson will deliver a speech on Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Downing Street, London, on Thursday 24 February 2022.
(Jeff Mitchell / Pool Photo via AP)

Labor’s widely expected victory in Wakefield – whose former Conservative lawmaker withdrew after being convicted of sexual assault – is a boost for a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010.

Labor leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the side of the working people, winning seats where we previously lost, and ready for government.”

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The Pollsters had said the Tiverton and Honiton race was close, but the Liberal Democrats toppled a 24,000-vote Conservative majority to win a majority of more than 6,000 votes. The election was called when the district’s conservative lawmaker withdrew after being caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons.

Even with the defeats, Johnson has a large majority in parliament. But his already shaky authority among his own legislators is further weakened.

Ethical allegations have plagued the prime minister for months, culminating in one scandal about 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 found to have broken the law while in office. An official report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson should be held responsible for “failure in leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking government.

He survived a no-confidence motion of his own party this month, but was left weakened after 41% of conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.

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The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson is leaving Downing Street to attend the weekly session on the issue of Prime Minister London, Wednesday 12 January 2022. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff offended coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a garden party in 2020, while Britons were by law barred from meeting with more than one person outside their households.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson is leaving Downing Street to attend the weekly session on the issue of Prime Minister London, Wednesday 12 January 2022. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff offended coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a garden party in 2020, while Britons were by law barred from meeting with more than one person outside their households.
(AP Photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Under party rules, Johnson may not face another such vote in a year, but Friday’s defeat will increase pressure to change it, and there is a growing chance of another uprising in the coming months.

Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to resign.

“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.

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Javed Iqbal

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