British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special parliamentary elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.
For the Conservative Party, the facts about the Tiverton and Honiton by-election are ugly: the loss of one of its safest seats, the greatest wipe-out of a majority in history, and the resignation of its chairman from a cabinet that had seemed unaware such an option existed. Psephologists projected that were the result repeated nationally, the Tories would lose 333 of their remaining 357 MPs to the Lib Dems. That won’t happen: but Friday’s result was seismic, and if the party is to be saved its elite will have to exert some leadership. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson’s Tories.
The contests, triggered by the resignations of Conservative lawmakers hit by sex scandals, offered voters the chance to give their verdict on the prime minister just weeks after 41% of his own MPs voted to oust him.
Neil Parish MP Finds Himself at the Centre of a Major Westminster Sex Scandal
He has been suspended by the Conservatives while an investigation takes place into claims he watched pornography on his mobile phone in Parliament. Following days of speculation about the identity of the man accused of viewing porn, it was announced on Friday that the Tory whip had been removed from Mr Parish, and that he had reported himself to the Parliament’s sleaze watchdog.
Parish said: “It was a complete mistake and I will man up to it as they say. My main concern at the moment is my very supportive wife. Stupidity rages.” Mr Parish suggested the porn had been sent to him and he had opened it “in error” but refused to expand further. He is also refusing to resign his Tory stronghold seat of Tiverton and Honiton which he has served since 2010. Moreover, Parish was not alone; there are 56 MPs under investigation for sexual misconduct, almost 10% of the House of Commons.
This week brings another Pestminster and sex scandal: a Tory MP arrested on suspicion of rape, indecent assault, sexual assault, abuse of a position of trust and misconduct in a public office, allegedly occurring between 2002 to 2009.
The Blue Wall, seats that stayed Tory even during the Blair landslide of 1997 and the locust years of the 2000s, is questioning its allegiance.
Many factors, notably the moral and personal conduct of senior Conservatives and the negative perception of the party’s competence and fundamental conservatism, have gone to the heart of why people have chosen not to support it.
What terrifies the Tories, and the Tory press, is that if this kind of tactical voting catches on at the next general election, then the 2019 Conservative majority of 80 will be wiped out.
In its drive to appeal to pro-Brexit voters and pursue political “wedge” issues it believes appeals to them, the Conservatives are creating problems in holding on to another part of its electoral coalition – more affluent, liberal-minded and pro-Remain Tories who have previously backed the party under David Cameron and Theresa May. Issues such as Brexit, the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and blaming Labour for train strikes, are less likely to keep them onside. Both the Lib Dems and Labour are targeting these seats, which are often undergoing demographic changes that make it harder for Tories. Another 40 seats, such as Esher and Walton, held by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, could be in this group. Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-time Johnson critic, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to quit now and said, “The soul of our party is at stake.”
Sir Keir Starmer, reflecting on Labour’s less overwhelming, but still significant,
victory in Wakefield (whose last Tory MP is in prison for paedophilia sex scandals) observed “If they had any decency, they’d get out the way for the next Labour government.” His victorious candidate, Simon Lightwood, touched a raw nerve when he said: “Boris Johnson, your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated.”
Among 2019’s Conservative voters, support and regard for the party has tanked since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
According to YouGov, 81% of these voters thought their party was best at handling defence then; now it is 60%. On handling Brexit, support has dropped from 86% to 59%. Approval of its economic handling is even worse, down from 87 to 54%; of its taxation policy, down from 78 to 49%; of its education policy, down from 71 to 43%; of its law and order policy down from 85 to 57%; and of immigration and asylum policy from 75 to 51%.
Other findings are even worse. In 2020, 85% of Conservative voters thought their party competent; now it is just 35%. Only 8% thought the Tories were in it for themselves; now 40% do. Then, 7% thought the party out of touch; now 48% do.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker, Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”
Party Chairman Oliver Dowden quit, saying, “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”
“We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office. I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” said Oliver Dowden, without offering an endorsement of Johnson.
Allegations about Johnson’s judgement and ethics have buffeted the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns. Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. A civil servant’s report on the “Partygate” scandal said Johnson must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgement” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.
Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote by his own party this month but was left weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him. Johnson could face another rebellion in the coming months. Losing both special elections will increase jitters among some Conservatives who already worry the ebullient but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.