Labour’s Simon Lightwood won the seat of Wakefield in the north of England, West Yorkshire, with a majority of 4,925 votes over a 12.7 percentage point gap between the Tories and Labor .
Moments later, Liberal Democrat Richard Foord won the Tiverton and Honiton by-election in Devon, west England, with a spectacular swing of nearly 30 points. The Conservatives had taken the seat with a majority of over 24,000 votes, so the victory was one of the largest majorities ever overthrown in a British parliamentary election.
Helen Hurford, the defeated Conservative Party candidate, had locked herself in a room previously reserved for media interviews at the counting venue and allegedly refused to speak to any media, PA Media reported.
“This is a historic victory for the Liberal Democrats and a devastating blow for Tory MPs who continue to support Boris Johnson,” a Liberal Democrat spokesman told British media.
Johnson said the UK government must “listen to the results” of the crushing by-election losses, prompting the Conservative Party’s own chairman, Oliver Dowden, to step down.
Speaking in a panel interview during a visit to Rwanda, Johnson called the “difficult” results “a reflection of a lot of things”, acknowledging that British voters are “going through a difficult time at the moment”.
“As a government, I have to listen to what people are saying. And the difficulties that people are facing with the cost of living, which is, I think, for most people, the number one problem,” said notice Johnson.
Thursday’s by-elections were sparked by high-profile resignations by Tory lawmakers – one who admitted watching pornography in the chamber of Britain’s parliament and another convicted of sexually abusing a teenager.
The results are significant – and deeply concerning for the ruling Conservative party – for two reasons. The defeat of Tiverton and Honiton means that many once secure seats in the south and west of England could be at risk at the next general election. Wakefield’s result suggests Labor could take over many of the so-called red wall seats that swung to Johnson’s party in the 2019 election.
Johnson has faced numerous other scandals that have rocked his standing in the polls – despite winning a landslide 80 seats just two and a half years ago. These include accusations of misusing donor money to pay for renovations to his Downing Street home and whipping MPs to protect a colleague who broke lobbying rules.
Few tools in the box
If these scandals – often dismissed by government ministers as “Westminster Bubble” stories – were the only concern of Britons, Johnson might not have such serious problems. But perhaps the biggest problem facing the Prime Minister is one that, to some extent, is beyond his control.
The cost of living crisis is deepening and the government has few tools in its box to make life easier for British citizens. There have been energy rebates and subsidies to help those most affected, but given the pace of inflation, they fail to address the scale of the problems.
This week alone, the country went through the worst railway strike in 30 years. Unions and opposition politicians point the finger squarely at Johnson for refusing to negotiate with unions.
Johnson’s allies will likely spend the next few days declaring that he is the only person capable of turning the tide and getting the party back to a winning position before the next general election, currently scheduled for 2024.
It may be true. But it could also be that the public has made a decision about him. Where once many admired him as the ‘Who Got Brexit Done’ man touted on his campaign posters – now he may just be another regular politician for much of the public.
Johnson is out of the country for the weekend, attending Commonwealth, G7 and NATO summits in Rwanda, Germany and Spain. It’s usually when the leader is out of the country that Westminster’s biggest plotters do their best. And there are a significant number of Tories who believe Johnson is dragging the party into oblivion and will cost them their jobs – and their power.
He has already faced a vote of confidence. He could very well face another before the end of the year. But the question some Tory MPs are quietly asking is: has Johnson’s premiership burned the earth? Is there anyone who could rebrand the party, as Johnson did in 2019, and lead a renewed party to another victory?
Barring a snap election, the Conservatives will be in power for 14 years when they ask the people to give them five more. By that time they will have had three very different leaders who were, it was thought at the time, the best people for the job.
If the country still feels like it’s going backwards, it will be very difficult for Johnson – or any other conservative – to argue that they are the people to drive it forward and keep a straight face.
CNN’s Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.