LONDON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took in chastening defeats in two parliamentary by-elections on Friday (June 24) in a sign of the depth of voter discontent after months of scandals and a growing cost of living crisis.
He pledged on Friday to do more to tackle a cost-of-living crisis and listen to people’s concerns after the two bruising defeats in England.
“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,” he told reporters in Kigali, Rwanda where he is attending a Commonwealth meeting.
“We’ve got to recognise there is more we’ve got to do and we certainly will, we will keep going addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch.”
The by-election defeats, including one in a previously safe seat, renewed speculation about Mr Johnson's future after after he earlier this month survived one move by Conservative lawmakers against him. Even then, 41 per cent of his parliamentary colleagues voted to oust him, and he is under investigation by a committee over whether he intentionally misled Parliament.
The prime minister has come under intense pressure to resign since he was fined for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules after a police investigation into gatherings at his Downing Street offices, with discontent also growing over a mounting cost of living crisis.
While Mr Johnson is staying in his job for now, Mr Oliver Dowden, the chairman of Conservative party, resigned on Friday, saying it could not carry on with business as usual after two crushing by-election defeats and someone had to take responsibility.
“Yesterday’s parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” Mr Dowden said in a resignation letter to the prime minister.
“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.”
The centrist Liberal Democrats party candidate Richard Foord won the Tiverton and Honiton seat in a deeply Conservative part of southwest England by a majority of nearly 6,144 votes, overturning a Conservative majority of more than 24,000 won in 2019.
The Liberal Democrats said the win in Thursday's election makes it the biggest ever majority to be overturned at a British parliamentary by-election, suggesting that other Conservative lawmakers may be at risk of losing their seats in the party’s southern heartlands.
“Tonight, the people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain. They’ve sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now,” the winning Lib Dem candidate Foord said in his victory speech. “With every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect.”
In the separate parliamentary seat of Wakefield in northern England, opposition Labour Party candidate Simon Lightwood won the by-election by a majority of 4,925 votes, winning back a seat that Labour had lost in 2019 for the first time in 90 years.
Mr Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest majority in three decades at the 2019 national election, winning praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labour-voting areas in north and central England.
However, the loss of Wakefield could indicate that his ability to win again in these areas at the next national election, expected in 2024, has been compromised too.
“Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories. This result is a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
The two by-elections were the voters’ first chance to give their verdict on Mr Johnson since a damning government report last month detailed a series of illegal lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street during the pandemic.
The prime minister on Thursday rejected the suggestion that he could resign if the Conservatives lost both seats, saying it was common for governing parties to lose mid-term by-elections.
The two by-elections were triggered by high-profile resignations of Conservative lawmakers - one who admitted watching pornography in parliament, and another found guilty of sexually abusing a teenage boy.