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Double blow for Britain’s Boris Johnson as he loses two important by-elections

Written by Javed Iqbal

Campaign posters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ahead of a major by-election triggered after Conservative MP Imran Ahmed Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor.

Daniel Harvey Gonzalez / In pictures via Getty Images

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suffered a double blow at the ballot box as his party lost two key parliamentary by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton.

The polls at each end of England had been seen as a litmus test of Johnson’s position after a series of scandals – including parties held in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns – and one rising cost of living crisis.

The double defeats led to the immediate resignation of Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, whose resignation letter said the party’s supporters were “saddened and disappointed by recent events” and that “someone must take responsibility.”

Wakefield

Labor’s main opposition party regained its former stronghold seat in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, from Johnson’s ruling Conservative party. Labor candidate Simon Lightwood defeated conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes as the Tories saw a 17.3-point slippage in their vote share from the 2019 general election.

The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1932, when the city became one of 45 historic Labor polling stations that turned in the last parliamentary election. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” and Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit the deal was central to the campaign that demolished Labour’s “red wall” across its traditional working-class heart areas in 2019.

Johnson’s party went into Thursday’s Wakefield election with a slim majority of 7.5 points.

The by-elections were triggered by the resignation of conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008.

Labor leader Keir Starmer said the result showed the country “has lost confidence in the Tories.”

Tiverton and Honiton

In contrast, the Tiverton and Honiton constituencies in Devon have historically been considered a “safe” seat for the Conservatives, with the party winning 60% of the vote in 2019.

But the center-liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in England, stormed to victory Thursday to overthrow a conservative majority of more than 24,000 votes. Lib Dem candidate Richard Frood defeated Conservative candidate Helen Hurford by more than 6,000 votes, recording a nearly 30% fluctuation, one of the largest midterm fluctuations in British history.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Neil Parish, who admitted to having seen pornography in parliament.

The constituency had become a target for significant campaign resources for the Lib Dems, who hoped to repeat the 34-point swing that led the party to take North Shropshire from the Conservatives in December 2021.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey told the BBC the result was “a wake-up call for all the Conservative MPs who support Boris Johnson”, adding that they “can not afford to ignore this result.”

What about Johnson?

Before the polls closed in Wakefield and Tiverton, the prime minister rejected the idea that he would stop if he lost his seats, as “crazy”.

After Thursday’s results, he said he would “listen to voters” but promised to “keep going”, despite the seemingly declining electoral force.

Johnson barely survived a vote of confidence among his own MPs earlier this month, after a damn report exposed the extent of breaches in Downing Street and the nearby Whitehall Government Building during the pandemic.

Now the by-election results and party chairman Dowden’s quick resignation are likely to screw up the vulnerable leader even more.

The main attack for voters appears to have been the “partygate” scandal, which provoked national anger across political divides and saw Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak receive fines from police for breaking the shutdown rules.

The British newspaper The Telegraph reported earlier this week that the conservative campaign leaflets and advertisements regarding the midterm elections in both West Yorkshire and Devon had either completely omitted references to Johnson or made them particularly sparse.

Helen Hurford, the Conservative candidate in Tiverton, was hailed by voters at City Hall last week after evading a question about the Prime Minister’s moral character.

Matt Singh, election analyst and founder of Number Cruncher Politics, pointed out in a tweet Friday that tactical voting aimed at ousting the Conservatives, rather than supporting Labor or the Liberal Democrats in particular, had been a significant factor in the result.

“Labor lost their deposit in Tiverton and won Wakefield on a decent turn. Lib Dems lost their deposit in Wakefield and won on a huge turn in Tiverton. This is industrial tactical voting and it’s a big deal,” Singh said.

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Javed Iqbal

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