Boris Johnson’s leadership was plunged into fresh crisis on Friday following two by-election defeats and the resignation of the Conservative party chair, in the UK prime minister’s first electoral test since narrowly surviving a confidence vote.
In Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, Liberal Democrat Richard Foord overturned a Conservative majority of 24,239 votes, winning by 6,144 votes. The seat had been held by the Conservatives since its creation in 1997.
In West Yorkshire, Labour regained Wakefield after Simon Lightwood beat his Conservative rival Nadeem Ahmed by 4,925 votes, marking a 12.7 percentage swing from Conservative to Labour.
The by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton were triggered by the resignation of disgraced Tory MPs and came after weeks of negative headlines for the prime minister and his government on a range of issues from the “partygate” scandal to the cost of living crisis.
The results prompted the resignation of Oliver Dowden, Conservative party chair, who in letter published on Twitter on Friday morning said the Tories could not “carry on with business as usual”.
Speaking to reporters in Rwanda, Johnson thanked Dowden for this service and said the government recognised the challenges facing the public.
“It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough by-election results, they’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things, but we’ve got to recognise voters are going through a tough time at the moment,” he said.
“I think, as a government, I’ve got to listen to what people are saying, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which, I think, for most people is the number one issue.”
The Conservatives won Wakefield in 2019 for the first time since 1931, one of the “red wall” seats in northern England that had previously been a Labour stronghold. But Imran Ahmad Khan, stepped down as the Tory MP in April of this year after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said the result proved that the “country has lost confidence in the Tories. This result is a clear judgment on a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas.”
Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey argued that his party’s win ought to be a “wake-up call” for Tory MPs.
“They cannot afford to ignore this result,” he said. “The public is sick of Boris Johnson’s lies and lawbreaking and it’s time for Conservative MPs to finally do the right thing and sack him.”
Foord, a former army major who campaigned on pledges to cut ambulance waiting times and support farming communities, gained 22,537 votes, while the Tories’ Helen Hurford came second with 16,393 votes.
The constituency became vacant in April when MP Neil Parish stood down after admitting that he had watched pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons chamber.
On Thursday, Johnson brushed off suggestions that he should resign if the Tories lost both by-elections. “Are you crazy?” the prime minister asked. “Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in midterm.”
Johnson, who narrowly won a confidence vote among Tory MPs by 211 votes to 148 this month, has attempted to steer his premiership back on course through a series of eye-catching policy proposals aimed at wooing Tory voters.
But the loss of Tiverton and Honiton will stoke greater concern among Tory MPs in the south of England fearful of a Lib Dem resurgence in “blue wall” seats.
Friday’s result marked the third Lib Dem win in a Conservative safe seat in a year following the party’s gains in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire.