Campaign posters in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ahead of a major secondary election triggered after Conservative MP Imran Ahmed Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor.
Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures via Getty Images
LONDON – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suffered a double whammy at the polls as his party lost two key parliamentary elections in Wakefield and Tiverton.
The votes, at opposite ends of England, were seen as a litmus test of Johnson’s stance after a series of scandals – including parties held in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns – and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis.
The double defeats led to the immediate resignation of Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, whose resignation letter said party supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and that “someone must take responsibility”.
The main opposition party, the Labor Party, has reclaimed its former stronghold of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, from Johnson’s Conservative Party. Labor candidate Simon Lightwood defeated Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes, while the Conservatives saw a 17.3 point drop in their share of votes in the 2019 general election.
The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1932, with the city becoming one of 45 historically Labor seats that turned in the last general election. Johnson’s “Finish Brexit” slogan and “ready-for-the-oven” Brexit deal were central to the campaign that demolished the Labor Party’s “red wall” in its traditional working-class heartland in 2019.
Johnson’s party entered Wakefield’s election on Thursday with a slim majority of 7.5 points.
The election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative Member of Parliament Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008.
Labor leader Keir Starmer said the result showed the country had “lost confidence in the Conservatives”.
Tiverton and Honiton
In contrast, the Devon constituency of Tiverton and Honiton has historically been seen as a “safe” seat for Conservatives, with the party winning 60% of the vote in 2019.
But the centrist Liberal Democrats, England’s third-largest party, took victory on Thursday to topple a Conservative majority of more than 24,000 votes. Lib Dem candidate Richard Frood defeated Conservative candidate Helen Hurford by more than 6,000 votes, recording a swing of nearly 30%, one of the biggest pre-election swings in British history.
The election was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Neil Parish, who admitted to watching pornography in Parliament.
The electorate became the target of significant campaign resources for the Lib Dems, who hoped to replicate the 34-point swing that saw the party take North Shropshire from the Conservatives in December 2021.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey told the BBC the result was “a wake-up call to all Conservative MPs who support Boris Johnson”, adding that they “cannot ignore this result”.
And now for Johnson?
Before the polls in Wakefield and Tiverton closed, the prime minister dismissed the idea that he would give up if he lost seats as “madness”.
After Thursday’s results, he said he would “listen to voters” but vowed to “continue” despite the apparent decline in his electoral strength.
Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence among his own lawmakers earlier this month after a scathing report revealed the extent of rule-breaking in Downing Street and the nearby Whitehall government building during the pandemic.
Now, the election results and the immediate resignation of party chairman Dowden are likely to add even more pressure on the embattled leader.
Voters’ main grievance appears to have been the “party gate” scandal, which drew national ire across political divides and saw Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak receive fines from police for violating lockdown rules.
British newspaper The Telegraph reported earlier this week that Conservative campaign leaflets and ads related to the West Yorkshire and Devon elections either completely omitted references to Johnson or made them remarkably sparse.
Helen Hurford, the Conservative candidate in Tiverton, was booed by voters at a town hall last week after dodging a question about the prime minister’s moral character.
Matt Singh, election analyst and founder of Number Cruncher Politics, highlighted in a tweet on Friday that tactical voting aimed at toppling the Conservatives, rather than supporting Labor or the Liberal Democrats in particular, was a significant factor in the outcome.
“Labor lost their deposit at Tiverton and won Wakefield on a good swing. Lib Dems lost their deposit at Wakefield and won on a big swing at Tiverton. This is an industrial-scale tactical vote, and it’s a big deal,” Singh said. .