Boris Johnson’s leadership was plunged into fresh crisis on Friday after two parliamentary by-election defeats for the Tories prompted the shock resignation of Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden.
Dowden said the Tories could not continue with “business as usual”, and former Conservative leader Lord Michael Howard called for the prime minister to step down.
But Johnson vowed to fight on after the Tories lost Wakefield in West Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon.
“When people find life tough they send messages to politicians, and politicians have to respond and that’s what we are doing,” he told a press conference at a Commonwealth heads of government summit in Rwanda.
Johnson put the by-election defeats down to the cost of living crisis, rather than controversy about the partygate scandal.
“We will keep going, addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch,” he said.
But Howard told the BBC: “The party and more importantly the country would be better off under new leadership. Members of the cabinet should very carefully consider their positions.”
In Tiverton and Honiton, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Richard Foord overturned a Conservative majority of 24,239, winning by 6,144 votes — the biggest Tory majority to be overturned in a by-election on record.
Labour won Wakefield after the party’s parliamentary candidate Simon Lightwood beat the Conservatives by 4,925 votes.
The by-elections were triggered by the resignations of disgraced Tory MPs and came after months of negative headlines for Johnson over the partygate affair and the cost of living crunch.
The results in the early hours of Friday were quickly followed by the departure of Dowden, who posted his resignation letter on Twitter at 5.35am.
He said the by-elections were “the latest in a run of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”
Dowden added: “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.”
He said he would “remain loyal to the Conservative party” but made no such pledge to Johnson.
In an ominous sign for Johnson, only a handful of cabinet ministers issued public statements supporting him. “We all take responsibility for the results,” chancellor Rishi Sunak wrote on Twitter.
Johnson, who survived a no-confidence vote by Conservative MPs this month, has attempted to reset his premiership through a series of policy initiatives, including help for families hit by soaring energy bills.
Under Tory rules overseen by the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Johnson should not have to face another vote on his leadership for one year.
But Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said he would stand in elections to the 1922 executive in the coming days on a manifesto of changing the rules to allow another vote of no confidence in Johnson this year.
Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said Johnson should “look in the mirror” and ask himself if he should stay in power.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said his party’s victory in Wakefield was “a clear judgment on a Conservative party that has run out of energy and ideas”.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, referring to the partygate scandal, said: “The public is sick of Boris Johnson’s lies and lawbreaking and it’s time for Conservative MPs to finally do the right thing and sack him.”
The loss of Tiverton and Honiton stoked concerns among Conservative MPs with seats in southern England about a Lib Dem resurgence. “Tory MPs in the south will naturally panic,” said one.
And the loss of Wakefield raised concerns that Tory MPs who won so-called red-wall seats in northern England off Labour at the 2019 election could now be vulnerable.
“If you are in a red-wall seat, you can’t honestly believe that this will be won at the next general election,” said one MP.
Source: Financial Times
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