British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special parliamentary elections dominated by criticism of his leadership and ethics.
The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson’s Tories.
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.
Defeat in either district would have been a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both causes jitters among restive Conservatives who already worry the erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.
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Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from Labour.
He was further wounded when his party’s chairman, Oliver Dowden, quit after the results came out early Friday (local time), saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual,” and a former party leader said the country needed “new leadership.”
“We cannot carry on with business as usual,” said Dowden
“Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”
Conservatives are increasingly concerned that the qualities that led them to make Johnson their leader — including a populist ability to bend the rules and get away with it — may now be a liability.
Ethics allegations have buffeted the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings while millions of others were banned from meeting friends and family during 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 judgement” 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.
Under party rules, Johnson can’t face another such vote for a year, but Friday’s defeats will increase pressure to change that.
The prime minister was 6400 kilometres away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the drama unfolded.