Simon Lightwood of the Labor Party won the Wakefield seat in the north of England in West Yorkshire with a majority of 4,925, with a Conservative-Labor margin of 12.7 percentage points.
Moments later, Liberal Democrat Richard Furd won the Tiverton and Honiton by-elections in Devon, western England by a landslide of nearly 30 points. The Conservatives took the seat with a majority of over 24,000 votes, making the victory one of the most significant votes ever defeated in a UK by-election.
Helen Herford, the losing Conservative Party candidate, locked herself in a room previously set aside for media interviews at the counting site and reportedly refused to speak to any media, according to PA Media.
“This is a historic victory for the Liberal Democrats and a devastating blow to those Conservative MPs who continue to support Boris Johnson,” a Liberal Democrat spokesman told British media.
Johnson said the UK government needed to “listen to the results” of a crushing by-election defeat that prompted its own Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, to step down.
Speaking during a joint interview during a visit to Rwanda, Johnson called the “difficult” results “a reflection of many things”, acknowledging that British voters are “going through tough times right now”.
“As a government, I have to listen to what people say. And the hardships that people have with the cost of living, which I think is the number one issue for most people,” Johnson said.
Thursday’s by-election was prompted by the high-profile resignations of Conservative MPs, one of whom admitted to watching porn in the British Parliament, while another was found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenager.
The results are important – and deeply worrying to the ruling Conservative Party – for two reasons. The defeat of Tiverton and Honiton means that many once-safe seats in southern and western England could be threatened in the next general election. Wakefield’s result suggests Labor could win back many of the so-called Red Wall seats that went to Johnson’s party in the 2019 election.
Johnson has faced a host of other scandals that have affected his reputation in the polls despite his landslide 80-seat win just two and a half years earlier. These include accusations of misusing donor money to pay for repairs to his Downing Street home and flogging members of parliament to defend a colleague who violated lobbying rules.
Several tools in a box
If these scandals, often referred to by government ministers as “Westminster Bubble” stories, were the only reason for British concern, Johnson might not have such serious problems. But perhaps the biggest problem facing the prime minister is one that is, to some extent, out of his hands.
The cost of living crisis is escalating and the government has few tools to make life easier for British citizens. Energy rebates and grants have been provided to help the hardest hit, but given the rate of inflation, these largely do not address the magnitude of the problems.
Just this week, the country experienced its worst rail strike in 30 years. Unions and opposition politicians directly accuse Johnson of refusing to negotiate with the unions.
Johnson’s allies will likely spend the next few days proclaiming that he is the only person who can turn things around and return the party to a winning position ahead of the next general election, currently scheduled for 2024.
This may be true. But it may also be true that the public has already decided on it. If he was once admired by many as the man “who got Brexit” as his campaign posters boasted, now he may be just another ordinary politician for most of the public.
Johnson left the country for the weekend, attending Commonwealth, G7 and NATO summits in Rwanda, Germany and Spain. Usually the biggest conspirators in Westminster work best when the leader is out of the country. And there are a significant number of conservatives who think Johnson is dragging the party into oblivion and will cost them their jobs — and power.
It has already faced one vote of confidence. He may well face another opponent before the end of the year. But the question some Conservative MPs are quietly asking is, has Johnson’s premiership burned the ground? Is there anyone who could rebrand the party, as Johnson did in 2019, and lead the revamped party to another victory?
If early elections are not called, the Conservatives will have been in power for 14 years when they ask the public for another five. During this time, they would have three very different leaders who were thought at the time to be best suited for the job.
If the country still feels like it is going backwards, it will be very difficult for Johnson or any other conservative to prove that they are the ones who can move forward and remain calm.
Niamh Kennedy of CNN contributed to this report.