Boris Johnson faced a double hammer blow to his authority after the Tories lost the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections on the same night, prompting Oliver Dowden, the party’s chairman, to resign.
Labor took Wakefield, while the Liberal Democrats overturned a majority of over 24,000 to snatch Tiverton and Honiton.
The Tiverton and Honiton result, where Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord beat the Conservatives’ Helen Hurford by 6,144 votes to take a constituency that has been Conservative in its various guises for more than a century, is seen as the most large numerical majority overturned in a by-election.
A Labor victory in Wakefield was more expected given Labor had always held the seat before the 2019 election, but the 4,925 majority for Simon Lightwood against the Tories’ Nadeem Ahmed is a major boost for Keir Starmer in the battle to regain seats at the “red wall”. .
Johnson is in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, before traveling to the G7 and NATO summits in Germany and Spain, keeping him out of the country for next week. But in his absence, the double defeat could prompt Tory backbenchers to try to reinvigorate efforts to oust him.
Speaking to broadcasters in Kigali, Johnson said the results were the result of “a lot of things”, including cost-of-living pressures, and pledged to continue.
“We have to recognize that we need to do more and we certainly will, we will continue to address people’s concerns until we get through this patch,” he said.
In a letter to Johnson, Dowden said the by-elections were “the latest in a series of very poor results for our party”, adding: “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their sentiments.
“We cannot carry on as if nothing had happened. Someone has to take responsibility and I concluded that in these circumstances it would not be fair for me to stay on.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a veteran MP who served on the executive of the 1922 Committee of Conservative Backbenchers, said colleagues may need to ‘take steps to have a new Prime Minister”.
He said: “I will take into account what my members say, then I will discuss this matter extensively with my colleagues. We will hear what the Prime Minister says, and then we will have to make tough decisions, no doubt.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said the Tiverton and Honiton result meant it was time for Tory MPs to ‘finally do the right thing’ and oust the Prime Minister.
He said: ‘This should be a wake-up call for all those Tory MPs who support Boris Johnson. They cannot afford to ignore this result.
Keir Starmer said Wakefield’s win showed the country “has lost faith in the Tories”. “This result is a clear judgment on a conservative party running out of energy and ideas,” he said.
After Johnson won a vote of confidence following lockdown-breaking Downing Street party controversies, party rules mean he is officially immune from a similar challenge for a year. However, these rules can be changed.
The results came less than ten minutes apart, at 4 a.m. on either side. First came Wakefield, where Lightwood won easily, securing 13,166 votes to Ahmed’s 8,241, a swing to Labor of 12%.
In Tiverton and Honiton, Foord oversaw a 30% swing to the Lib Dems, winning 22,537 votes to Hurford’s 16,393.
The Tory candidate, who had endured a sometimes awkward campaign, locked herself in a room set aside for media interviews during the West Devon count, apparently refusing to speak to the press.
In his victory speech, Foord thanked voters in the constituency, including Labor supporters who he said had “lent” their support to help him win.
The scale of the tactical vote, which saw Labor win 1,562 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, while the Lib Dem candidate in Wakefield secured just 508, will further alarm Tory officials and MPs.
The by-elections were called after the respective MPs resigned in disgrace. Imran Ahmad Khan resigned in Wakefield after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenager, while Neil Parish resigned in Tiverton and Honiton after watching pornography in the Commons.
The result is another landmark for the Lib Dems, who took the conservative seat of equally rural and Brexit-friendly North Shropshire in a by-election in December, overthrowing a Tory majority of nearly 23,000 for win after former MP Owen Paterson resigned following a lobbying scandal. .
It followed a Lib Dems victory in June last year in Chesham and Amersham, a suburban ring constituency in northwest London, raising concerns among Tory MPs that dozens of seats similar to the “blue wall” could fall amid widespread dislike for Johnson among more liberal Tory voters.
The feeling that Johnson is no longer an electoral asset, associated with the parties, could lead Tory MPs to turn decisively against the Prime Minister, although a new challenge is seen as unlikely before the fall.