Boris Johnson’s Tories suffer fresh electoral defeat; party chair quits

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership suffered a fresh blow Friday with the resignation of his party chairman after the Conservatives lost two symbolically important parliamentary seats in elections.

Oliver Dowden, chairman of the ruling Conservative Party and early backer of Johnson, resigned from his post after his party was defeated in two special parliamentary elections, saying pointedly “somebody must take responsibility.”

“We cannot carry on with business as usual,” he penned in a letter to the prime minister.

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His resignation came hours after Conservatives lost seats to the opposition Labor Party and Liberal Democrats in areas of the country where the defeats will send jitters through the Tories and renew questions about Johnson’s leadership.

Johnson, who is in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, told reporters Friday that he will “listen” to voter but promised to “keep going.” Johnson is out of the country for several days. After the Commonwealth summit, he heads to Germany for a Group of Seven meeting and then to Spain for a NATO summit.

The prime minister’s Conservatives have been struggling in the polls amid a cost-of-living crisis and revelations that he and his staff broke covid lockdown rules, which resulted in Johnson becoming the first British prime minister to be fined while in office.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, tweeted his support for Johnson. “We all take responsibility for the results and I’m determined to continue working to tackle the cost of living,” he said. Sunak was once thought of as a possible successor to Johnson but his star him has waned in recent months.

Others, including former Conservative leader Michael Howard, said that Johnson should resign “for the good of the country.” He told the BBC that it may be time for the Conservative Party to change its rules, as it can do, to enable another leadership challenge.

Johnson recently won a cliffhanger no-confidence vote in his leadership, called by disgruntled colleagues who wanted to oust him. Under current rules, another vote cannot be called for a year.

The two special parliamentary elections were triggered following high-profile resignations by Conservative lawmakers. Tiverton and Honiton’s lawmaker, Neil Parish, resigned after he was caught watching pornography in the House of Commons. Wakefield’s Imran Ahmad Khan was found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

They represented just two seats in the 650-seat Parliament where Conservatives dominate. But the losses will be worrisome for the party, with signs of anti-Tory tactical voting and defeats in constituencies with symbolic importance.

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In the Tiverton and Honiton seat in the southwest of England, the Liberal Democrats won 53 percent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 39 percent. The loss in this area, sometimes dubbed the “blue wall” because of its historical Conservative support — Tiverton had voted Conservative for over a century — raises questions about other Conservative seats thought to be extremely safe.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey hailed it as “the biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen.” This is the third time in the past year when Liberal Democrats have seized seats from Conservatives in areas with previously healthy Tory majorities.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Labor Party won in Wakefield, a former industrial area in northern England — part of the once staunchly Labor “red wall” area in the north that Johnson’s Conservatives won in the 2019 general election with the pledge to “get Brexit done” .” Analysts said that this district resulted in less about voter enthusiasm for the Labor Party than about the discontent among Conservatives voters. They also said there were signs of Labor-Liberal Democrat tactical voting that could hurt the Tories if repeated in the next election.

“Johnson’s problem is not simply that he’s lost popularity,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. In the five seats that have come up for grabs since Johnson led his party to a massive majority in 2019, “it’s perfectly clear that opposition voters are willing to vote for whoever is best able to defeat the Conservatives locally.” In some cases that have been Labour; in others, the Liberal Democrats.

If there was an election today, Curtice said, the latest polls suggest that no party would win outright, meaning that the main political parties would need allies to cobble together a majority.

“The Tory party’s lack of allies would matter crucially. If the Tories can’t get a majority or something like it in the next election then they are stuffed,” he said. The next general election is scheduled for January 2025.

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