LONDON ( Associated Press) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a double blow when voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special parliamentary elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.
He was further wounded when the party’s chairman resigned after the results were announced early Friday, saying conservatives “can not proceed with business as usual,” and a former party leader said the country needed “new leadership”.
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The centrist Liberal Democrats overthrew a large Conservative majority to win the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labor Party claimed Wakefield in the north of England from Johnson’s Tories.
The rallies, sparked by the resignations of conservative lawmakers hit by sex scandals, gave voters the chance to give their verdict on the prime minister only weeks after 41 percent of his own MPs voted to oust him.
“The people of Tiverton and Honiton spoke on behalf of Britain,” said the area’s newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker Richard Foord. “They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go and go now.”
Defeat in any district would have been a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both increases the despair among tranquil conservatives who are already worried about the exuberant but fickle and divisive Johnson is no longer an election asset.
Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying “our supporters are upset and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”
“We can not proceed with business as usual,” said Dowden, a former staunch Johnson loyalist.
“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said without supporting Johnson.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who, like Johnson, was a strong supporter of Britain’s exit from the European Union, urged the party to remove him as leader.
“The party, and more importantly the country, will be better off under new leadership,” Howard told the BBC.
The prime minister was 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda while the drama unfolded.
The election tests came as Britain faced the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine suppressing energy and food supplies in a time of rising consumer demand as the coronavirus pandemic declines.
“I’m not going to pretend these are brilliant results,” Johnson told a news conference in Kigali. “We have to listen, we have to learn. “When people find it difficult, they send messages to politicians, and politicians have to respond.”
Johnson won a large majority in a 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters – prosperous, older and concentrated in the south of England – and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern towns where many residents felt that governments have been overlooked for decades.
Thursday’s election brought a defeat on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton have voted conservatively for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that won the 2019 Tories from Labor.
Labour’s widespread victory in Wakefield – whose former Conservative lawmaker resigned after being convicted of sexual assault – is a boost for a party that has been nationally out of office since 2010.
Labor leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the side of working people, winning seats where we lost before, and ready for government.”
Pollsters said the Tiverton and Honiton race was tough, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a Conservative majority of 24,000 votes to win by 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 defeats, which erode his already shaky authority among his own legislators, Johnson has his party a large majority in Parliament. But conservatives are increasingly concerned that the traits that led them to make Johnson their leader – including a populist ability to bend the rules and get away with it – could now be a liability.
Ethics allegations have plagued the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings, while millions of others have been barred from meeting friends and family during coronavirus restrictions.
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Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister to be found breaking the law while in office. A government official’s report on the “party holes” scandal said Johnson must be held responsible for “leadership and judgment failures” that created a culture of rule violation in government.
He survived a no-confidence vote by his own party this month, but was left weak after 41 percent of conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.
According to party rules, Johnson could not face such a mood again for a year, but Friday’s defeats will increase pressure to change that.
“These are pretty dire results,” said Conservative lawmaker Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior member of the committee that oversees party distrust votes.
“Serious discussions will take place in the next few days and weeks and then we will all have to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Johnson is also facing a parliamentary ethics inquiry that could lead to the conclusion that he deliberately misled parliament over “party holes” – traditionally a resignation.
Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to resign now.
“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.