Boris Johnson has faced a double hammer blow to his authority after the Conservatives lost the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton byelections on the same night, prompting the party co-chair Oliver Dowden to resign.
Labour took Wakefield, while the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-plus majority to snatch Tiverton and Honiton.
The Tiverton and Honiton result, where the Lib Dem candidate, Richard Foord, defeated the Tories’ Helen Hurford by 6,144 votes to take a constituency that has been Conservative in its various forms for well over a century, is believed to be the biggest numerical majority ever overturned in a byelection.
A Labour win in Wakefield was more expected given Labour had consistently held the seat before the 2019 election, but the 4,925 majority for Simon Lightwood against the Conservatives’ Nadeem Ahmed is a major boost for Keir Starmer in the battle to regain “red wall” seats.
Johnson is in Rwanda for a Commonwealth heads of government summit, before travelling to the G7 and Nato summits in Germany and Spain, keeping him out of the country for the next week. But in his absence, the double loss could push Tory backbenchers to try to restart efforts to oust him.
Speaking to broadcasters in Kigali, Johnson said the results were the result of “a lot of things”, including pressures over the cost of living, and pledged to carry on. “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,” he said.
In a letter to Johnson, Dowden said the byelections were “the latest in a run of very poor results for our party”, adding: “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.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a veteran MP who is on the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said it was possible colleagues might need to “take steps to have a new prime minister”. He said: “I will consider what my members say, I will then discuss this matter widely with my colleagues. We will hear what the prime minister says, and then we will have to make some difficult decisions, no doubt.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said the Tiverton and Honiton result meant it was time for Tory MPs to “finally do the right thing” and oust the prime minister. “This should be a wake-up call for all those Conservative MPs propping up Boris Johnson. They cannot afford to ignore this result.”
Keir Starmer said the Wakefield win showed 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,” he said.
After Johnson won a confidence vote following controversies over lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties, party rules mean he is officially safe from a similar challenge for a year. However, these rules can be changed.
The results arrived within less than 10 minutes of each other, at either side of 4am. First came Wakefield, where Lightwood won easily, securing 13,166 votes, against 8,241 for Ahmed, a swing to Labour of 12%.
In Tiverton and Honiton, Foord oversaw a 30% swing to the Lib Dems, taking 22,537 votes against 16,393 for Hurford. The Tory candidate, who had endured a sometimes tricky campaign, locked herself in a room set aside for media interviews at the count, reportedly refusing to speak to the press.
In his victory speech, Foord thanked voters in the constituency, including Labour supporters who, he said, had “lent” their backing to help him win. The scale of tactical voting, which saw Labour gain 1,562 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, while the Lib Dem candidate in Wakefield got just 508, will further alarm Conservative officials and MPs.
The byelections were called after the respective MPs resigned in disgrace. Imran Ahmad Khan stepped down in Wakefield having been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy, while Neil Parish quit in Tiverton and Honiton after watching pornography in the Commons.
The result is another landmark for the Lib Dems, who took the similarly rural, Brexit-minded Tory seat of North Shropshire in a byelection in December, overturning a Tory majority of nearly 23,000 to win after the former MP Owen Paterson quit over a lobbying scandal.
This followed a win for the Lib Dems in June last year in Chesham and Amersham, a commuter-belt constituency to the north-west of London, prompting worries among Tory MPs that dozens of similar “blue wall” seats could fall amid widespread dislike of Johnson among more liberal-minded Conservative voters.
A sense that Johnson is no longer an electoral asset could result in Tory MPs turning decisively against the prime minister, although a new challenge is viewed as unlikely before autumn.