LONDON (AFP) - Polls closed on Thursday (June 23) in two closely watched British by-elections that risk renewing pressure on beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has vowed not to resign even if his ruling Conservatives lose the highly symbolic seats following months of scandals and setbacks.
The Tories are tipped to lose the contest for the parliamentary seat of Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England – a true blue heartland which has voted Conservative in every general election since the 1880s.
They are also expected to lose Wakefield in the north, part of the so-called Red Wall which switched from Labour to Tory in Mr Johnson’s 2019 landslide win.
Tiverton and Honiton's MP Neil Parish quit after admitting watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons, while Wakefield's Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
Polls closed at 10pm (2100 GMT), with results expected in the early hours of Friday.
Early on Friday before the official result was declared, the centrist Liberal Democrats claimed a “historic victory” in what had been a safe Conservative seat of Tiverton and Honiton.
“This is looking like a clear win. The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken up for the country,” a Liberal Democrat spokesman said. “This is an historic victory for the Liberal Democrats and a devastating blow for those Conservative MPs who continue to prop up Boris Johnson.”
The votes come just weeks after Mr Johnson narrowly survived an attempt by his own lawmakers to oust him as party leader and prime minister.
The June 6 vote among Conservative MPs saw more than 40 per cent of the parliamentary party desert him, leaving him severely weakened and struggling to reset his turbulent tenure.
As voters head to the polls the embattled prime minister is thousands of miles away attending a Commonwealth summit, from where he again insisted quitting was not on his mind.
“Are you crazy?” he replied to reporters travelling with him when asked if twin defeats on Thursday could trigger his resignation.
“Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in mid-term,” Mr Johnson added. “I’m focused entirely on delivering on the agenda of this government.”
Mr Johnson has spent months fighting for his survival after a series of controversies including the "Partygate" saga led many Tories to question whether he should remain as leader.
Various opinion polls have shown the public think he lied about Covid-19 lockdown-breaking events at Downing Street and should resign.
Even before the controversy erupted last December, the 58-year-old Brexit architect saw the loss of two once-safe seats in by-elections last year.
He then scored dismally in May's local elections.
Parish, who described his actions as an indefensible moment of "total madness", won a more than 24,000 majority in Tiverton and Honiton in 2019.
The small opposition Liberal Democrats are hopeful of success, with party leader Ed Davey saying they were “neck and neck”. Residents are “fed up of Boris Johnson’s lies and neglect”, he added.
Wakefield, near Leeds, was one of dozens of so-called Labour "red wall" seats that Mr Johnson took in 2019 on a promise to "get Brexit done" and address glaring regional economic inequalities.
But it could now flip back due in part to Mr Johnson's waning popularity.
Retired teacher Judy Froggat said local people wanted to give Mr Johnson “a bloody nose”. “I’m quite incensed by a lot of the things that he’s done,” she told AFP after casting her ballot, branding the prime minister “a proven liar”.
"Anything is better than the Tory Party, as far as I'm concerned - especially Boris Johnson," long-time Labour voter Stephen, a 61-year-old hospitality worker, told AFP this week.
'Partygate' and prices
The polls come with Britain gripped by 40-year highs in inflation and a cost-of-living crisis that has seen prices soar for everyday essential such as energy, petrol and food.
Strikes this week by railway workers - some of the biggest seen in Britain in decades - have added to the sense of crisis.
Some in Wakefield said they expected that to weigh as heavily on voters' minds as the Downing Street parties saga.
"I think people will be affected by 'Partygate'," said David, a retired medical consultant.
"But I think the main thing we're going to be affected by is being hit by the inflation and the rising cost of living from the point of view of heating, energy and the knock-on effect on food prices and transport."
The contest there also comes with risks for Labour, which needs to secure seats like Wakefield if it is to win the next general election due by 2024.
Labour leader Keir Starmer, a sober-minded former lawyer who has been trying to rebuild the centre-left party after the shattering 2019 defeat, has been criticised for failing to connect with voters, particularly in its former heartlands.
Anything less than a convincing win in Wakefield is likely to be seized upon by his critics as further evidence of his inability to complete the rebuild and return the party to power after 12 years in opposition.
Retired Wakefield resident Moretta Pullan, 79, said people were “disillusioned” with both of Britain’s main political parties, but Mr Johnson was bearing the brunt of that.
“So I think people are (at a) crossroads, really, as to who to vote for,” she told AFP.
“We all put our hands up for Boris and thought he was going to be the most wonderful leader we’ve ever had and lead us to the glory land, and he hasn’t.”