Boris Johnson has been subjected to a double hammer blow against his authority after Conservatives lost the city election in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton the same night, prompting Oliver Dowden, party chairman, to resign.
Labor took Wakefield, mens Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-plus majority to snatch Tiverton and Honiton.
The Tiverton and Honiton result, in which Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord defeated the Tories’ Helen Hurford by 6,144 votes to take a constituency that has been conservative in its various forms for well over a century, is believed to be the largest numerical majority ever toppled in a midterm election.
ONE Labor victory in Wakefield was more expected as Labor had consistently held the seat before the 2019 election, but the majority of 4,925 for Simon Lightwood against Conservatives Nadeem Ahmed is a big boost for Keir Starmer in the battle to regain “red wall” seats.
Johnson is in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Government Summit before traveling to the G7 and NATO summits in Germany and Spain, and will keep him out of the country next week. But in his absence, the double loss could pressure the Tory backers to try to restart efforts to oust him.
Speaking to TV companies in Kigali, Johnson said the results were the result of “many things”, including pressure on the cost of living, and promised to continue.
“We need to recognize that there is more we need to do, and we certainly will, we will continue to address people’s concerns until we get through this patch,” he said.
In a letter to Johnson, Dowden said the midterm elections were “the latest in a series of very poor results for our party,” adding: “Our supporters are saddened and disappointed by the recent events, and I share their feelings.
“We can not continue with business as usual. Someone must take responsibility and I have concluded that in these circumstances it would not be right for me to remain in office.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a veteran MP who is on the board of the 1922 Committee of Tory backers, said it was possible that colleagues might have to “take steps to get a new prime minister”.
He said: “I will consider what my Members are saying and then I will discuss this matter broadly with my colleagues. We will hear what the Prime Minister is saying and then we will no doubt have to make some difficult decisions.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said the result from Tiverton and Honiton meant it was time for Tory MPs to “finally do the right thing” and oust the prime minister.
He said: “This should be a wake-up call for all the Conservative MPs who support Boris Johnson. They can not afford to ignore this result.”
Keir Starmer said the Wakefield victory showed the country “has lost confidence in the Tories”. “This result is a clear verdict on a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas,” he said.
After Johnson won a vote of confidence after controversy over shutdown-breaking Downing Street parties, party rules mean he is officially safe from a similar challenge for a year. However, these rules can be changed.
The results arrived within less than ten minutes in a row, on both sides of 4 p.m. First came Wakefield, where Lightwood won easily, securing 13,166 votes against 8,241 for Ahmed, a 12% turn to Labor.
In Tiverton and Honiton, Foord monitored a 30% turn for the Lib Dems, taking 22,537 votes against 16,393 for Hurford.
The Tory candidate, who had endured a sometimes difficult campaign, locked himself inside a room set aside for media interviews by the Count of West Devon and reportedly refused to speak to the press.
In his victory speech, Foord thanked voters in the constituency, including Labor supporters, who he said had “borrowed” their backing to help him win.
The scale of tactical polls in which Labor received 1,562 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, while the Lib Dem candidate in Wakefield received only 508, will further alert Conservative officials and MPs.
The by-elections were called after the respective MPs withdrew in disgrace. Imran Ahmad Khan resigned in Wakefield after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy while Neil Parish resigned in Tiverton and Honiton after watching pornography in the Commons.
The result is another landmark for Lib Dems, which took the corresponding rural, Brexit-reminded Tory seat North Shropshire in a by-election in Decemberand toppled a Tory majority of nearly 23,000 to win after former MP Owen Paterson resigned over a lobbying scandal.
This followed a victory for the Lib Dems in June last year in Chesham and Amershama constituency with a commuter belt in north-west London, raising concerns among Tory MPs that dozens of similar “blue wall” seats could fall amid widespread aversion to Johnson among more liberal-minded Conservative voters.
A sense that Johnson is no longer an electoral candidate, combined with the parties, could result in Tory MPs turning decisively against the prime minister, even though a new challenge is considered unlikely before the autumn.