Boris Johnson under pressure: UK’s Conservative Party loses 2 parliamentary seats


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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.

The party’s chairman quit after the results early Friday, saying the party “cannot carry on with business as usual.”

The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labor Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson’s Tories.

In this photo issued by UK Parliament, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
(Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament via AP)

The contests, triggered by the resignations of Conservative lawmakers hit by sex scandals, offered voters the chance to give 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 for Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”

Defeat in either district would have been a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both increases jitters among restive Conservatives who already worry the ebullient but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.

Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying “our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”

“We can not carry on with business as usual,” he said. “Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”

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In this photo provided by UK Parliament, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as members of the opposition party gesture, during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, in London, Wednesday, Jan.  12, 2022.

In this photo provided by UK Parliament, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as members of the opposition party gesture, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, in London, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
(UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor via AP)

“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said, without offering an endorsement of Johnson.

The prime minister was 4,000 miles away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the results were announced.

He told reporters on Thursday that he would not step down if the Conservatives lost both elections, replying to the suggestion with: “Are you crazy?”

“Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in midterm,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”

The electoral tests come as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and food staples at a time of soaring consumer demand while the coronavirus pandemic recedes.

Johnson won a big majority in a 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters – affluent, older and concentrated in southern England – and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern towns where many residents felt overlooked by governments for decades.

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Thursday’s elections were tests on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton has voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from Labor.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers an address on the attack by Russia on Ukraine, in Downing Street, London, Thursday, Feb.  24, 2022.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers an address on the attack by Russia on Ukraine, in Downing Street, London, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
(Jeff Mitchell / Pool Photo via AP)

Labor’s widely expected victory in Wakefield – whose previous Conservative legislator resigned after being convicted of sexual assault – is a boost to a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010.

Labor leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the side of working people, winning seats where we lost before, and ready for government.”

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Pollsters had said the Tiverton and Honiton race was tight, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-vote Conservative majority to win a majority of more than 6,000 votes. The election was called when the district’s Conservative lawmaker resigned after being caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons chamber.

Even with the defeats, Johnson holds a large majority in Parliament. But his already shaky authority among his own lawmakers has further weakened.

Ethics allegations have buffeted 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 found to have broken the law while in office. A civil servant’s report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

He survived a no-confidence vote by his own party this month but was left weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend the weekly session of Prime Ministers Questions in London, Wednesday, Jan.  12, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff flouted coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a garden party in 2020 while Britons were barred by law from meeting up with more than one person outside their households.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend the weekly session of Prime Ministers Questions in London, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff flouted coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a garden party in 2020 while Britons were barred by law from meeting up with more than one person outside their households.
(AP Photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Under party rules, Johnson can not face another such vote for a year, but Friday’s defeats will increase pressure to change that, and there is a growing chance of another rebellion in the coming months.

Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-time critic of Johnson, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to quit.

“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.



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