The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, speaks to reporters as he meets with Simon Lightwood, who won the Wakefield special election, on June 24. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
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LONDON — Beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a fresh blow Friday with the resignation of his party chairman after the Conservatives lost two symbolically important parliamentary seats.

Oliver Dowden, chairman of the ruling Conservative Party and early backer of Johnson, resigned from his post after the special election defeats Thursday, 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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Dowden’s resignation came hours after Conservatives lost seats to the opposition Labour Party and Liberal Democrats in constituencies where the defeats will send jitters through the Tories and renew questions about Johnson’s leadership.

The prime minister, who is in Rwanda for a meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, said “I’m not going to pretend these are brilliant results. We’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn.” Asked at a news conference if he was worried that critics in his own party were plotting against him while he was out of the country, he said “no.”

Johnson is away from Britain 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 led to 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 considered a possible successor to Johnson but his star has waned in recent months.

Others, including former Conservative leader Michael Howard, said Johnson should resign “for the good of the country.” He told the BBC that it might be time for the Conservative Party to change its rules to enable a new 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 special elections were triggered by the high-profile resignations of two Conservative lawmakers. Neil Parish of Tiverton and Honiton resigned after he was caught watching pornography in the House of Commons. Imran Ahmad Khan of Wakefield was found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

Conservatives still dominate the 650-seat House. But the losses will be worrisome for the party, with signs of anti-Tory tactical voting and defeats in constituencies of 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” — 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.” It was the third time in the past year Liberal Democrats have seized seats from Conservatives in areas with previously healthy Tory majorities.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party won in Wakefield, a former industrial area in northern England — part of the once staunchly Labour “red wall” area that Johnson’s Conservatives won in 2019 with the pledge to “get Brexit done.” Analysts said the result was less about voter enthusiasm for the Labour Party than about the discontent among Conservatives voters. They also said there were signs of Labour-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, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. In the five special elections since his party won 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 has been Labour; in others, the Liberal Democrats.

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

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

The next general election is scheduled for January 2025.

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