UK Conservative Party chairman resigns after landslide by-election defeats

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was defeated in two by-elections on Friday, prompting the resignation of the party chairman and renewing speculation over the beleaguered British leader’s future.

The losses – one in the Conservatives’ traditional southern heartland and a northern England seat won by Labor in the last election – suggest the electoral coalition Johnson assembled in the 2019 national election could fracture.

Johnson’s transformation from vote winner to voter accountability could prompt lawmakers to act against him again after months of outrage over the lockdown holidays and amid a growing cost of living crisis.

Johnson came under intense pressure to resign after being fined for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules after a police investigation into rallies at his Downing Street offices.

This month he survived a vote of confidence from Tory lawmakers, despite 41% of his fellow parliamentarians voting to oust him, and he is being investigated by a committee to find out whether he intentionally misled Parliament.

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Following the losses at Tiverton, Honiton and Wakefield, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying things needed to change within the party.

“Yesterday’s by-elections are the latest in a series of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their sentiments,” Dowden said in a resignation letter to Johnson.

“We can’t carry on business as usual. Someone has to take responsibility and I’ve come to the conclusion that under these circumstances it wouldn’t be right for me to stay on.”

Although under his party rules he cannot be challenged by a no-confidence motion for another year, lawmakers fearing for their own futures may decide to cut the grace period to induce another vote.

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‘Go now’

The Tories lost a majority of more than 24,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, in a deeply conservative part of south-west England, to be beaten by the centrist Liberal Democrats who secured a majority of more than 6,000 votes.

The Liberal Democrats said it was the biggest majority ever overturned in a UK parliamentary election, suggesting other Tory lawmakers could risk losing their seats in the party’s south.

Lib Dem winning candidate Richard Foord said in his victory speech that Johnson should “go, and go now”.

“With every day Boris Johnson clings to power, he brings even more shame, chaos and neglect,” he said.

Johnson on Thursday rejected a suggestion that he could quit if the Conservatives lost both seats, saying it was common for ruling parties to lose midterm by-elections.

In the separate parliamentary seat of Wakefield, in the north of England, the opposition Labor party also beat the Conservatives.

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“Wakefield has shown that the country has lost faith in the Tories. This result is a clear judgment on a Tory party that has run out of energy and ideas,” Labor leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.

Johnson led the Tories to their biggest majority in three decades in the 2019 national election, winning praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labor voting areas in northern and central England.

However, Wakefield’s loss could indicate that his ability to win again in those areas in the next national election, due in 2024, has also been compromised.

The by-elections were triggered by high-profile resignations of Tory lawmakers – one who admitted watching pornography in parliament and another convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager.

(Reuters)

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