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Boris Johnson blamed for crushing special election losses

Conservatives suffered two special election defeats as voters across England abandoned the party in droves. The results appear to indicate that the beleaguered prime minister has become electorally toxic.

LONDON (CN) — The United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party has suffered a twin blow of two damning special election losses in results announced Friday morning, after voters took to the polls on Thursday.

In the constituency of Wakefield in northeast England, the opposition Labour Party overturned a Conservative majority of 3,000 voters on a 12% swing to Labour. But an even more dramatic result occurred in the constituency of Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England, with the Liberal Democrats overturning a 24,000-strong Conservative majority on a 30% swing.

Both elections were called after the previous sitting Conservative MPs resigned in disgrace. In Wakefield, Imran Ahmed Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor, whilst in Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish was forced out after it was revealed he had watched pornography while waiting to vote in the House of Commons.

Liberal Democrat candidate Richard Foord beat Tory Helen Hurford by 6,144 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, while Labour member Simon Lightwood defeated Conservative Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes in Wakefield.

The twin results are alarming for the Conservatives for different reasons. Wakefield is a traditionally Labour Party-leaning seat which swung to the Conservatives in the last general election, and has an electorate indicative of a large number of narrowly won constituencies upon which the government's parliamentary majority is reliant.

Tiverton and Honiton, meanwhile, is traditionally an extremely safe rural Conservative seat in which an electoral challenge should be unthinkable. However, on Thursday voters of all opposition parties, along with former Tory voters, tactically swung behind the Liberal Democrats to prevent a Conservative victory. The result is historic: it is the biggest majority ever overturned in British special election history, with the liberal party coming from a distant third place in the previous poll to secure a comfortable victory.

The results increase the insecurity of most Conservative members of Parliament, both the newer intake in the north and established MPs in the south. They also add pressure to resign for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has suffered a catastrophic collapse in public popularity since it was revealed he had broken coronavirus lockdown laws by attending parties in his official government residence, 10 Downing Street.

The fallout from the revelations have engulfed British politics in what is now a seven-month-long leadership crisis, with Johnson firmly refusing to resign even after police found that he had committed an offence and issued him with a fine. In total police issued 126 fines to officials within 10 Downing Street, making the building host to more Covid penalties than any other in the country. Johnson had previously denied any rule-breaking had taken place.

Prior to the announcement of the special election results, Johnson claimed it would be “crazy” for him to resign, whatever the outcome. He argued that special election losses are normal for a midterm government and voters were punishing the government due to rising inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

But polling continues to be damning for the prime minister. According to focus groups conducted by the pollster J. L. Partners, the primary reason voters in Wakefield swung to Labour was because Johnson "tried to cover up Partygate, and lied to the public” while the secondary reason was that he "is not in touch with with working-class people.” Other reasons cited include the belief that a new Tory MP “would do Boris Johnson's bidding” and that a Conservative victory “would reward Boris Johnson’s behavior.”

Johnson’s disapproval rating currently sits at an unenviable 69%, with only 24% approval, while polling by YouGov indicates that 80% of the British public believe he is dishonest.

The results will further confirm in the minds of Conservative parliamentarians the view that Johnson – once viewed as a unique electoral asset for the party – is now toxic to voters and leading them to defeat at the next general election.

Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden stepped down following the announcement of the losses, writing in his resignation letter that "we cannot carry on with business as usual.” Later in the morning, former party leader Michael Howard went further, telling BBC Radio 4 that “the party and more importantly the country would be better off under new leadership.”

However, despite this now being a widely shared view among Conservatives, the prime minister’s removal is not straightforward. Johnson won an internal vote of confidence, albeit narrowly, less than three weeks ago, preventing the triggering of a full blown leadership contest. Under current Conservative Party rules, another confidence vote cannot be held for 12 months. However this rule can be changed, and there is clear demand for such a rule change among MPs. Johnson would be unlikely to survive a second vote.

Alternatively, mass resignations from government would almost certainly force Johnson out of office without the need for another confidence vote. However, with no obvious successor lined up, ministers are reluctant to make a move until they have confidence that they could reenter government under new leadership.

This stalemate may prolong Johnson’s premiership for months to come. He is currently at a commonwealth summit in Rwanda, before heading to G7 meetings in Germany next week. After that, Parliament is suspended for a summer break, reducing the opportunity for MPs to plot.

In recent weeks Johnson has sought to focus government policy on so-called "wedge issues" in order to try and reopen a Brexit-associated cultural divide among the British public that originally propelled him to power.

But with a parliamentary inquiry into Johnson’s conduct ongoing and no sign of public anger subsiding, the issue of Partygate does not appear to be going away.

Speaking after the special election results were announced, the successful Labour candidate Lightwood said: “Tonight, the people of Wakefield have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said unreservedly: Boris Johnson, your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated.”

About 250 miles south, the sentiment was echoed by the winning Liberal Democrat, Foord, who said: “Every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect … 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.”

Former Prime Minister David Cameron once famously compared Johnson to a “greased piglet” for his ability to wiggle out of crises. On the basis of this week’s results, there appears to be very little wiggle room left.

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