What by-election defeats mean for Boris Johnson

The PM faces a trio of challenges after two heavy losses at the polls

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Despite two resounding by-election defeats and the resignation of a key ally, Boris Johnson has made it clear that he’s not going anywhere.

The PM said he will “listen” to voters, but intends to “keep going” after the Conservatives lost to Labour in Wakefield and, more surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton. Johnson also appears determined to shrug off the departure of Oliver Dowden, who quit as Tory party co-chair this morning in the wake of the two defeats.

However, speculation is mounting that the setbacks leave Johnson with diminished authority in the Commons and facing humiliation at the next general election – unless he is unseated by a second rebellion before he goes to the country.

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Game is ‘surely up’

The results “make it more likely the prime minister will face a renewed challenge”, said Peter Walker, political correspondent of The Guardian, because they “cast a pall over Boris Johnson’s pitch that he is an election winner”. Although the long summer Commons recess will probably delay another challenge until the autumn, the by-election results “do make it notably more likely”.

Nigel Farage agreed. “I can already hear the excuses: it’s midterm blues, these things often happen, Boris is an election winner and he easily won the confidence vote,” he wrote in The Telegraph, but “it is all nonsense” and “the game is surely up”.

The result in Tiverton represented “the biggest swing away from a governing party in British political history”, said Politico. It “will further stoke Tory fears that the so-called ‘Partygate’ scandal has triggered a collapse in support for Johnson in the traditional Tory shires”.

Those fears could spread from the backbenches to the cabinet itself. Deputy leader Dominic Raab and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps sit on much smaller majorities than the 24,239 the party has lost in Tiverton and Honiton, reported i news. Johnson’s own majority of 7,000 in Uxbridge and South Ruislip would also be in danger.

The resignation today of Dowden will add to those concerns, says BBC political editor Chris Mason. “Conservative MPs from the top down have the jitters this morning,” he said. “The dawn decision of their former chairman [is] quickening their pulse further.”

Authority is ‘diminished’

Johnson still enjoys a large majority in the House of Commons so, mathematically, he can afford to lose two seats. However, results could still make it harder for Johnson to govern as attention will turn to how long he can remain as party leader, shrinking his stature.

Tory peer Lord Barwell, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff in No 10, said Johnson’s authority is “very significantly diminished” and “draining away”.

Even before the results came in, the PM had to “operate knowing that another confidence vote is a near certainty”, wrote James Forsyth in The Spectator. Johnson “can’t afford to lose the support of any more MPs”, and that means avoiding difficult votes on house-building, climate legislation or NHS reform. “Never has it been more difficult for him to get anything significant done.”

Election fears

“Winning the next general election just became much harder for Tories,” polling expert John Curtice wrote in The Times, noting that the Liberal Democrat majority over the Tories in Tiverton and Honiton (14.4 points) was similar to the drop in Labour’s vote (15.8 points).

“Mr Johnson’s problem is not simply that his party has lost support,” said Curtice, but that “many opposition voters are now seemingly willing to vote for whichever candidate seems best able to defeat the Conservatives locally”. If that pattern is repeated nationwide, “winning the next general election could begin to look a lot more difficult”.

Sean O’Grady, in The Independent, agreed. “Across Britain, voters hate Boris Johnson so much they will break the habit of a lifetime and vote for whoever is best placed to get rid of him,” he wrote.

Indeed, said The Guardian, Conservative MPs face a “pincer movement” from a resurgent Labour in “red wall” seats and from Lib Dem challengers both in the “blue wall” of commuter belt constituencies and in some rural areas. And any measures to placate one group of voters could further alienate the other.

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