Boris Johnson’s leadership was plunged into a fresh crisis on Friday after two by-election defeats and the resignation of Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden, in the UK prime minister’s first electoral test since narrowly surviving a vote of confidence.
In Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, Liberal Democrat Richard Foord overturned a Conservative majority of 24,239 votes, winning by 6,144 votes. The victory marked the biggest Tory majority overturned in a by-election and represented a 30 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats.
In West Yorkshire, Labor regained Wakefield after Simon Lightwood beat his Conservative rival Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes, marking a 12.7 percentage swing from Conservative to Labor.
The by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton were triggered by the resignation of disgraced Tory MPs and came after weeks of negative headlines for the prime minister and his government on a range of issues from the “partygate” scandal to the cost of living crisis.
The defeats highlighted the challenges facing the prime minister in both northern “red wall” seats the Tours captured from Labor in the last election and the Conservatives’ “blue wall” traditional strongholds in the south.
The results prompted the resignation as Conservative chair of Dowden, who in a letter posted on Twitter at 5:35 on Friday morning said the Tours could not “carry on with business as usual”.
He added: “Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.” He said he would “remain loyal to the Conservative party” but made no such pledge to the prime minister personally.
Speaking to reporters in Rwanda, Johnson thanked Dowden for his service and said the government understood the extent of the challenges faced by the public.
“It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough by-election results, they’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things, but we’ve got to recognise voters are going through a tough time at the moment,” he said.
“As a government, I’ve got to listen to what people are saying, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which, I think, for most people is the number one issue.”
The Conservatives won the “red wall” seat of Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1931. But Imran Ahmad Khan stepped down as the Tory MP in April of this year after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008.
Sir Keir Starmer, labor leader, said the result proved that the “country has lost confidence in the Tours. This result is a clear judgment on a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas.”
Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey argued that his party’s win, in a seat which had been represented by the Conservatives since its creation in 1997, ought to be a “wake-up call” for Tory MPs.
“They cannot afford to ignore this result,” he said. “The public is sick of Boris Johnson’s lies and lawbreaking and it’s time for Conservative MPs to finally do the right thing and sack him.”
Foord, a former army major who campaigned on pledges to cut ambulance waiting times and support farming communities, gained 22,537 votes, while the Tours’ Helen Hurford came second with 16,393 votes.
The constituency became vacant in April when MP Neil Parish stood down after admitting that he had watched pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons chamber.
On Thursday, Johnson brushed off suggestions that he should resign if the Tories lost both by-elections. “Are you crazy?” the prime minister asked. “Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in midterm.”
Johnson, who narrowly won a confidence vote Among Tory MPs by 211 votes to 148 this month, has attempted to steer his premiership back on course through a series of eye-catching policy proposals aimed at wooing Tory voters.
But the loss of Tiverton and Honiton will stoke greater concern among Tory MPs in the south of England fearful of a Lib Dem resurgence in “blue wall” seats.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 committee and Conservative MP for the Cotsworlds warning that it would be “difficult” to hold on to his constituency, if a by-election was held at this time.
“I think factually if I were to run under a bus today it would be difficult to hold my seat, there’s no doubt about that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.
Friday’s result marked the third Lib Dem win in a Conservative safe seat in a year after the party’s gains in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire.