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Boris Johnson clings to power following damaging election loss

A stunning election defeat is the latest setback for the scandal-hit prime minister, whose position looks increasingly vulnerable.

(CN) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a leadership crisis following his Conservative Party's shock defeat in a special election.

Conservative support in the North Shropshire constituency — a safe seat held by the party for almost 200 years — collapsed on Thursday, as the rival Liberal Democrats secured a comfortable and historic victory in a special election triggered by the resignation of a Conservative member of parliament, or MP.

The election result tops off a disastrous six weeks for the prime minister in which his public popularity has plummeted following a series of scandals, and his authority in parliament appears to have eroded, with many Conservative MPs in open revolt against the beleaguered leader.

Following the announcement of the election result , the Liberal Democrat victor Helen Morgan was unequivocal in her condemnation of Johnson, saying: "Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said, loudly and clearly, ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over.’"

"Thousands of lifelong Conservative voters are dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and fed up with being taken for granted," Morgan said. "Our country is crying out for leadership. Mr. Johnson, you are no leader."

The result overturns a comfortable victory secured by the Conservatives in the West Midlands seat at the last general election held only two years ago, when the party won 62.7% of the vote in a five-way contest. The 34% swing to the Liberal Democrats on Thursday is one of the largest in British special election history.

The result is made even more remarkable by the unfavorable context the constituency presented for the challenging Liberal Democrats. The centrist party, known for being the most vocal opponents of Brexit in British politics, triumphed despite North Shropshire having overwhelmingly backed Brexit in the European Union membership referendum five years ago.

The collapse in support for the prime minister has been rapid and chaotic. His troubles began last month when the former MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson, was found by the independent parliamentary standards commissioner to have broken the rules on paid lobbying, having asked questions to ministers on behalf on the firms Randox and Lynn's Country Foods while failing to declare he was being paid more than 100,000 pounds ($132,786) a year in consultancy roles at both companies.

The commissioner's inquiry found that Paterson's behavior was an "egregious case of paid advocacy" which amounted to a "serious wrong or substantial injustice." The bipartisan standards committee reported that it had never seen "so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behavior in failing to separate private and public interests."

In response, Johnson ordered his MPs to vote to reject the findings of the commissioner's inquiry, and subsequently to abolish the role of the commissioner and replace it with a new standards system that would be controlled by his own party. The leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, described the prime minister's actions as corruption.

Following fierce public backlash to the move, Johnson was forced to abandon plans to reject the report and abolish the commissioner, and ordered his MPs to vote to overturn their own previous decision. The climbdown prompted fury among Conservatives who felt they had been forced into publicly supporting an indefensible position.

Paterson subsequently resigned, triggering the North Shropshire special election. A series of damaging corruption allegations against Conservative MPs surfaced in the media in subsequent days.

Following the Paterson crisis, a major policy announcement that a new high speed railway would no longer be built to the Yorkshire city of Leeds appeared to undermine Johnson's own key election pledge to "level up" the country and reduce regional inequalities through infrastructure investment.

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The decision was seen as a betrayal by the Conservative Party's 2019 intake of new northern MPs, upon whom the prime minister's parliamentary majority depends. At the same time, fiscally hawkish MPs in the Thatcherite wing of the party had been expecting greater concessions, and were also left unhappy by the price tag that remained attached to the proposals, which they viewed as still too high.

The move was compounded by a further controversial policy announcement on social care the following week, which also appeared to break another key Conservative election pledge promising that elderly people would not be forced to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Eighty-seven Conservative MPs either abstained or voted against the government, meaning the plans passed narrowly, reducing Johnson's 80-strong majority to just 26.

Johnson exacerbated a sense of freefall in late November by delivering a rambling speech to the Confederation of British Industry in which he extensively praised the children's theme park Peppa Pig World, compared himself to Moses, imitated the noise of an accelerating car, and lost his place in his notes for over 20 seconds. The speech confused and frustrated business representatives who had been expecting policy announcements on industrial strategy. The prime minister's spokesperson was later forced to confirm that the PM was not unwell.

But the biggest crisis of Johnson's premiership came last week, when ITV News released footage of his former press secretary Allegra Stratton and other senior aides discussing a Christmas party that had been held at 10 Downing Street in December 2020, when the United Kingdom was under tight coronavirus restrictions that banned social gatherings. Stratton was recorded laughing about the party, joking that "this fictional party was a business meeting… and it was not socially distanced."

The video sparked outrage among the public, with many emotionally recounting stories on TV and radio of their separation from dying family members over the same period due to the rules imposed by the government.

Johnson had repeatedly told reporters and parliament that no party had taken place, but the video appeared to expose his assurances as untruthful. It has subsequently been reported that up to four further parties took place over November and December 2020, in direct contravention of government restrictions on social gatherings.

Intensifying the crisis, the following day the U.K. Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party for failing to accurately report donations used to fund the renovation of Johnson's Downing Street apartment. The finding of the Electoral Commission's investigation appear to contradict the prime minister's claims that he was unaware of the source of funding for the renovation.

On Tuesday, Johnson appeared to have lost the confidence of his own party in Parliament. Ninety-nine Conservative MPs rebelled against the government and voted to oppose the introduction of new coronavirus restrictions, designed to halt the spread of the omicron variant. The vote was one of the largest backbench rebellions in modern parliamentary history and meant that the new measures passed only with the support of opposition parties.

Johnson's appeal to Conservatives has always been the perception that he is an electoral asset, with a jovial anti-politics style that appeals to sections of the electorate the party otherwise cannot reach. However, in light of the last month and a half of political freefall, his personal approval ratings have slumped to an all-time low while his party's polling figures have fallen definitively behind their Labour Party rivals for the first time in years.

The Conservative Party is historically brutal towards leaders who it believes to have become an electoral liability. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was famously and unceremoniously dumped by the party following rioting across the U.K. in opposition to her proposed poll tax. And in 2019, Theresa May was swiftly ejected after losing the support of her MPs following three historic parliamentary defeats of her proposed Brexit deal.

Still, the ousting of Johnson would be a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for a leader who secured a stunning general election victory only two years ago, delivering the Conservative Party their largest parliamentary majority in 32 years. Few would have expected Johnson, with his exuberant celebrity brand and Teflon-like ability to deflect crises, to fail to see out the five-year term that he had won.

In light of the damning special election result Friday morning, Conservative grandee Sir Roger Gale was swift to blame the prime minister. Expressing the privately held view of many plotting MPs, Gale told the BBC: "one more strike and he’s out."

Based on Johnson's recent record, and the ambitious positioning of much of his Cabinet, many will suspect that another strike is just around the corner.

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