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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow when voters rejected his Conservative party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.
The party chairman resigned after the results on Friday morning, saying the party “cannot carry on business as usual”.
The centrist Liberal Democrats overthrew a large Conservative majority to win the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labor party retook Wakefield in northern England from the Conservatives of Johnson.
The contests, sparked by the resignations of Tory lawmakers hit by sex scandals, offered voters the chance to deliver 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 on behalf of Britain,” said newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for the area, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: it’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”
A defeat in either district would have been a setback for the Prime Minister’s party. Losing both increases nervousness among restive Tories who already worry Johnson, exuberant but erratic and divisive, is no longer an electoral asset.
Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying “our supporters are saddened and disappointed by recent events, and I share their sentiments.”
“We can’t carry on business as usual,” he said. “Someone has to take responsibility and I have concluded that in these circumstances it would not be right for me to stay on.”
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“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said, without offering his support to Johnson.
The prime minister was 4,000 miles away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda when the results were announced.
He told reporters on Thursday he would not quit if the Tories lost both elections, responding to the suggestion with: ‘Are you crazy?’
“Governing parties usually don’t win by-elections, especially at midterm,” he said. “It’s just the reality.”
The election tests come as Britain faces its worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and basic foodstuffs at a time when demand of consumers increases as the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
Johnson won a large majority in the 2019 general election by keeping traditional Tory voters – affluent, older and concentrated in the south of England – and winning new ones in the more northern post-industrial towns. poor where many residents have felt neglected by governments for decades.
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Thursday’s election was a test on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district which the Conservatives won in 2019 from Labour.
Labor’s widely anticipated victory in Wakefield – whose former Tory lawmaker resigned after being convicted of sexual assault – is a boost for a party that has been out of power nationally since 2010 .
Labor leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the workers’ side, winning seats where we lost them before and ready for government”.
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Pollsters had said the race in Tiverton and Honiton was tight, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of 24,000 votes to win a majority of more than 6,000 votes. The election was called when the district’s Conservative lawmaker resigned after he was caught watching pornography in the Commons chamber.
Even with the defeats, Johnson holds a large majority in parliament. But his already fragile authority among his own legislators has weakened further.
The ethics allegations have rocked the Prime Minister for months, culminating in a scandal over 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 convicted of breaking the law while in office. An official’s report into the ‘partygate’ scandal said Johnson must take responsibility for the ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ that have created a culture of rule-breaking in government.
He survived a vote of no confidence from his own party this month but was weakened after 41% of Tory lawmakers voted to impeach him.
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Under party rules, Johnson cannot face another such vote for a year, but Friday’s defeats will increase the pressure to change that, and there is a growing chance of another rebellion within months. coming.
Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, reiterated his calls for the Prime Minister to step down.
“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.