LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was defeated in two parliamentary by-elections on Friday after a historic collapse in support, in a fresh blow for the embattled leader that will likely renew speculation about his future.
The losses – one in the Conservatives’ traditional southern heartlands and in a northern England seat won from Labour last election – suggest that the electoral coalition Johnson brought together at the 2019 national election may be fracturing after months of scandal and amid a growing cost-of-living crisis.
Johnson has come under intense pressure to resign after he was fined for breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules after a police investigation into gatherings at his Downing Street offices.
This month he survived a vote of confidence by Conservative lawmakers, though 41% of his parliamentary colleagues voted to oust him, and he is under investigation by a committee over whether he intentionally misled Parliament.
The Conservatives lost a majority of more than 24,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, in a deeply Conservative part of southwest England, defeated by the centrist Liberal Democrats who secured a majority of more than 6,000.
The Liberal Democrats said it was the biggest ever majority to be overturned at a British parliamentary by-election, suggesting that other Conservative lawmakers may be at risk of losing their seats in the party’s southern heartlands.
“Tonight, the people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain. They’ve sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now,” the winning Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord said in his victory speech.
“With every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect.”
In the separate parliamentary seat of Wakefield in northern England, the opposition Labour party also defeated the Conservatives.
“Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories. This result is a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
The two by-elections were the voters’ first chance to give their verdict on Johnson since a damning government report last month detailed a series of illegal lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street during the pandemic.
Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest majority in three decades at the 2019 national election, winning praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labour-voting areas in north and central England.
However, the loss of Wakefield could indicate that his ability to win again in these areas at the next national election, expected in 2024, has been compromised too.
Johnson on Thursday rejected the suggestion that he could resign if the Conservatives lost both seats, saying it was common for governing parties to lose mid-term by-elections.
The by-elections were triggered by high-profile resignations of Conservative lawmakers – one who admitted watching pornography in parliament, and another found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Tom Hogue, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Gerry Doyle