The scale of defeats in the by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton in the southwest of England and in Wakefield in the north of England could make the Conservative rebels wish they had waited several weeks to pass a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson. For the 148 MPs who voted against him, these results might have swayed their counterparts just enough to join them in overthrowing the prime minister.
After such results, even Johnson’s supporters may be nervous about the future. Only 72 constituencies in the UK were allegedly safer for Tories than Tiverton and Honiton, where the Conservatives had a majority of 24,000 and won 60% of the vote in the 2019 election. , replacing Conservative MP Neil Parish, who resigned after admitting to watching pornography in the House of Commons.
It was the third consecutive Liberal Democrat crackdown on Johnson’s party, following by-elections in Chesham and Amersham in the South East of England and North Shropshire in the West Midlands. The party now appears poised to take other seats in the countryside and south in the next election.
Meanwhile, the new northern counties blue wall, taken from Labor in 2019, is already crumbling. Labor took Wakefield away from the Conservatives after Conservative MP Imran Khan was jailed for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy. Many blue wall seats require only a small amount of rocking to return to their working position. The swing of 12.7% that returned Wakefield red was more than three times the required 3.8%, indicating the fragility of the majority built by Johnson’s Conservatives in their remarkable triumph in the 2019 election.
In Wakefield, the Conservatives fell by 17.3%, while in Tiverton and Honiton they fell by 21.8%, results that could give Labor hope for the next election.
What’s next for Johnson?
Immediately following these two by-election results, Oliver Dowden, chairman of the Conservative Party, resigned, saying “someone has to take charge.”
Johnson may have one last chance to rebuild himself as an electoral asset, which, combined with his Brexit defense, is what propelled him to the lead in the first place. The party is losing confidence in Johnson, as the recent vote of confidence shows, but his huge victory in the 2019 general election was proof enough to keep him.
Yesterday’s result dealt another blow to Johnson’s reputation as the winner of the election. The loss of the shires of the county – a stronghold of the Conservatives – in next year’s local elections will be even more painful and will surely mean the end – even for a leader who is good at using his luck.
Johnson’s MPs are well aware that they have no friends in Parliament (with the controversial exception of Northern Ireland’s DUP members). While other political parties may contest elections to form a coalition, a conservative leader needs an absolute majority. Outright victory now looks like a major challenge, not least for a party that will be asking voters to extend its term of office to nearly 20 years.
The Conservatives can rightly argue that the turn against them in Wakefield was not impressive by by-election standards. But in the north these days, only modest shifts will return a number of northern seats to Labor.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats suffered a net loss of seats in the last election, but still increased their share of the vote in 574 of the 611 constituencies the party contested. The party is now in second place with 88 seats, of which 80 belong to the Conservatives. Johnson may be a lucky general – but he’s never fought on so many fronts – and he’s losing at the moment.
By-elections are too often dismissed as temporary foam. This is silly. The demise of Margaret Thatcher, the last Conservative leader to win an absolute majority in more than one election, has been linked to Europe, the poll tax and cabinet hostility. But three devastating by-election defeats just a month before she faced a fatal leadership challenge should not be underestimated.
The triumph of John Major in 1992 was followed by further failures in by-elections. The Conservatives lost all eight seats they defended in the next parliamentary by-election, including one just three months before they were utterly defeated by Labor in the 1997 general election.
Read more: Tiverton and Honiton by-elections: Rural communities yearn to vote in protest
Tony Blair’s by-election successes were a sure sign that New Labor would be safely re-elected. Blair was king of the by-election, and Labor never lost a seat to the Conservatives under him. Thirteen seats were successfully defended, with only two seats lost to the Liberal Democrats. The situation worsened and we knew that Labor was going out of power when Gordon Brown’s party lost by-elections in Crewe and Nantwich (2008) and Norwich North (2009) by 18% and 17% respectively.
After an interim victory in Parliament (Hartlepool of the Labor Party last year), Johnson now has a poor by-election record. Two seats were filled, but one of them was not contested by the other main parties – all four other contests were lost.
As leader of the party, Johnson desperately needs to improve his ratings in the opinion polls, and these losses are not helping. If he lives to see next year, he will need credible local election results if there is any certainty that he will take the Conservatives to the next election.