LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double whammy when voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.
The party’s chairman resigned after the results early Friday, saying the party “cannot continue with business as usual.”
The centrist Liberal Democrats defeated a large Conservative majority to win the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labor Party recaptured Wakefield in the North of England from Johnson’s Tories.
The contests, triggered by the resignations of Conservative lawmakers hit by sex scandals, offered voters a chance to deliver their verdict on the prime minister just weeks after 41% of their own MPs voted to impeach him.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker Richard Foord. “They sent a message loud and clear: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”
Defeat in either district would have been a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both adds to nervousness among uneasy conservatives who already fear the enthusiastic but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.
Party chairman Oliver Dowden has resigned, saying “our supporters are distraught and disappointed by recent events, and I share their sentiments.”
“We cannot continue with business as usual,” he said. “Someone needs to take responsibility and I have concluded that under these circumstances it would not be right for me to continue in office.”
“As always, I will remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said, without endorsing Johnson.
The prime minister was 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda when the results were announced.
The election tests came as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine cutting energy and food staples supplies at a time of surging consumer demand as the coronavirus pandemic recedes. .
Speaking in Kigali, Johnson acknowledged the results had been “tough” and said he would “listen to what people are saying, particularly the hardships people are facing because of the cost of living.”
Johnson won a large majority in the 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters (wealthy, older and concentrated in the south of England) and winning new ones in the poorer towns of the post-industrial north where many residents felt ignored by governments for decades.
Thursday’s election was a test on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Conservatives won in 2019 from Labour.
The widely anticipated victory for Labor in Wakefield, whose previous Conservative lawmaker resigned after being convicted of sexual assault, is a boost for a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010.
Labor leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the workers’ side, winning seats where we lost before and ready for government”.
Pollsters had said Tiverton and Honiton’s race was close, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-vote Conservative majority to win a majority of more than 6,000 votes. The election was called when the district’s Conservative lawmaker resigned after being caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons chamber.
Even with the losses, Johnson has a large majority in Parliament. But his already shaky authority among his own lawmakers has further weakened.
Ethics accusations have dogged 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 to break the law while in office. A public official’s report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson must take responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that have created a culture of rule-breaking in government.
He survived a no-confidence vote from his own party this month, but was weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to impeach him.
Under party rules, Johnson cannot face another such vote for a year, but Friday’s losses will increase the pressure to change that, and there is a growing possibility of another rebellion in the coming months.
Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, has reiterated his calls for the prime minister to step down.
“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.