Campaign posters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ahead of a key 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 — UK 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 votes, at opposite ends of England, had been viewed as a litmus test of Johnson’s standing after a string of scandals — including parties held at Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns — and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis.
The double defeats prompted the immediate resignation of Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden, whose resignation letter said the party’s supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and that “someone must take responsibility.”
The main opposition Labor Party regained its former stronghold seat of Wakefield, in 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 slide in their vote share from the 2019 General Election.
The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1932, with the city becoming one of 45 historically Labor-voting seats that flipped at the last general election. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” and Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal were central to the campaign that demolished Labor’s “red wall” across its traditional working class heartlands in 2019.
Johnson’s party went into Thursday’s Wakefield election with a slender 7.5-point majority.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative Member of Parliament 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
By contrast, the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, in Devon, has historically been viewed as a “safe” seat for the Conservatives, with the party winning 60% of the vote in 2019.
But the centrist Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in England, stormed to victory on Thursday to overturn 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, registering a swing of almost 30%, one of the biggest by-election swings in British history.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Neil Parish, who admitted to watching pornography in Parliament.
The constituency had become a target of significant campaign resources for the Lib Dems, who hoped to replicate the 34-point swing that saw the party take North Shropshire from the Conservatives in December 2021.
Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey told the BBC that the result was “a wake-up call for all those Conservative MPs propping up Boris Johnson,” adding that they “cannot afford to ignore this result.”
What now for Johnson?
Prior to polls closing in Wakefield and Tiverton, the prime minister dismissed the notion that he would quit if he lost the seats as “crazy.”
Following Thursday’s results, he said he would “listen to voters” but vowed to “keep going,” despite the apparent waning of his electoral strength.
Johnson narrowly survived a confidence vote among his own MPs earlier this month, after a damning report laid bare the extent of rule-breaking at Downing Street and the nearby Whitehall government building during the pandemic.
Now, the by-election results and party chair Dowden’s prompt resignation will likely turn up the heat even more on the embattled leader.
The main flu for voters appears to have been the “partygate” scandal, which drew national ire across political divides and saw Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak receive fines from the police for breaking lockdown rules.
Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reported this week that Conservative campaign leaflets and advertisements relating to them earlier in the by-elections both West Yorkshire and Devoted had either omitted references to Johnson entirely, or made notably scarce.
Helen Hurford, the Conservative candidate in Tiverton, was booed by constituents at a town hall last week after dodging a question about the prime minister’s moral character.
Matt Singh, election analyst and founder of Number Cruncher Politics, highlighted in a tweet Friday that tactical voting aimed at ousting the Conservatives, rather than backing Labor or the Liberal Democrats in particular, had been a significant factor in the result.
“Labour lost their deposit in Tiverton and won Wakefield on a decent swing. Lib Dems lost their deposit in Wakefield and won on a huge swing in Tiverton. This is industrial scale tactical voting, and it’s a big deal,” Singh said.