LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double whammy as voters rejected his Conservative party in two special parliamentary elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.
He was further hurt when the party chairman resigned after results were released early on Friday, saying the Tories ‘cannot carry on business as usual’, and a former party leader says the country needed “new leadership”.
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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.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken on behalf of Britain,” said the area’s new Liberal Democrat MP 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,” Dowden, previously loyal to Johnson, said.
“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said, without offering Johnson his endorsement.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard, who like Johnson was a strong supporter of Britain leaving the European Union, urged the party to remove him as leader.
“The party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership,” Howard told the BBC.
The Prime Minister was 6,400 kilometers away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the drama unfolded.
The election tests came as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine cutting energy and basic food supplies at a time when the consumer demand increases as the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
“I’m not going to pretend these are shiny results,” Johnson told a news conference in Kigali. “We have to listen, we have to learn. … When people find it difficult, they send messages to politicians, and politicians have to respond.
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.
Thursday’s elections resulted in defeat 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”.
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 by 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, which erode his already fragile authority among his own lawmakers, Johnson, his party, holds a large majority in parliament. But Tories are increasingly concerned that the qualities that led them to make Johnson their leader – including a populist ability to bend the rules and get away with it – are now a liability.
Ethics allegations have rocked the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings while millions more have been banned from meeting friends and family during coronavirus lockdowns.
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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. A civil servant’s report into the ‘partygate’ scandal said Johnson must take responsibility for the ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ that 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.
Under party rules, Johnson cannot face another such vote for a year, but Friday’s losses will increase the pressure to change that.
“These are pretty disastrous results,” said Conservative lawmaker Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior member of the committee that oversees party no-confidence votes.
“Serious discussions will take place in the coming days and weeks, and then we will all have to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Johnson is also facing a parliamentary ethics inquiry which could conclude he deliberately misled parliament about ‘turnout’ – traditionally a resignation offence.
Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to step down now.
“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.