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The loss of two key parliamentary seats in a single night for Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives will raise major concerns in the party over its longer-term outlook under his leadership.
Johnson won an emphatic majority for the Tories in 2019 by doing what none of his predecessors had been able to do: win over Labour’s northern England heartlands while keeping traditional Conservative seats in the south.
The early hours of Friday revealed how that electoral coalition is breaking.
In Tiverton and Honiton, a rural southwest constituency held by the Tories since its creation in 1997, voters abandoned the Conservative Party in their droves, and the Liberal Democrats -- crucially with the help of former Labour voters -- overturned a huge majority to take the seat.
The totemic result indicates voters of all stripes are joining forces to defeat the Tories, with potentially dramatic implications for the next general election due in January 2025 at the latest.
Read More: Johnson’s Coalition Is Crumbling Among New Tory Voters and Old
Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party won back the district of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, dealing a major blow to Tory strategists’ plans to build on inroads made by Johnson in so-called Red Wall seats less than three years ago.
The fallout was immediate, with Tory MPs expressing shock at the scale of the defeats and party Chairman Oliver Dowden resigning before he was due to appear on the government’s broadcast round.
Johnson, who narrowly survived a party confidence vote just two weeks ago, will inevitably face renewed pressure over his leadership.
But there is a wider threat to his party that goes beyond the prime minister, as a cost-of-living crisis and rising anger over the state of public services triggers a backlash against the Conservatives after 12 years in power.
Even Tory supporters are “distressed and disappointed,” Dowden said in his resignation letter. “We cannot carry on with business as usual.”
Read More: Boris Johnson’s Flagship Plan to Fix Britain Is in Trouble
The problem for Johnson, though, is that there is no obvious way for him to turn things around. He built his 2019 Conservative coalition under a slogan of “Get Brexit Done,” combined with a promise to “level up” disadvantaged areas of the UK, including in northern England.
Yet even Johnson no longer stands by the divorce deal he signed with the European Union, and some prominent Brexiteers are increasingly critical of how the project is playing out. At the same time, the Wakefield result suggests his flagship “levelling up” mission is also falling short.
The Tiverton result will also bolster fears among Tory MPs representing similar so-called Blue Wall seats, who complain that Johnson is focusing too much on northern England and allowing the Liberal Democrats to build momentum.
Read More: UK Electoral Swing Exposes Prominent Members of Johnson’s Tories
The huge swing of 30% was similar to the 34% shift from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats in another district election in North Shropshire in December. Prominent Tories, including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Solicitor General Alex Chalk, will be looking over their shoulders.
Much of the narrative surrounding the Conservative Party’s slump in the polls has focused on the scandals related to Johnson’s conduct in office, including being fined by police as part of a probe into illegal parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic. His ethics adviser resigned last week.
Johnson was arguably fortunate that the rising anger among his MPs was enough to trigger a confidence vote before, rather than after, Friday’s results. Under party regulations, he is safe from another vote for a year, and even some Tory rebels have argued it would be unfair to change the rules now.
In reality, though, there’s a view that if the rebels show they have the numbers to oust Johnson, the rules could be changed to allow a vote. He could also be effectively forced to resign if his cabinet ministers turn against him.
Veteran Conservative Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who sits on the backbench committee that sets party rules, told BBC Radio that MPs now had to listen to the premier after the election losses and then “make a judgment as to whether we think that is a satisfactory explanation -- or whether we should actually take steps to have a new prime minister.”
The prime minister was 4,000 miles away in Rwanda when the results came in, potentially making it harder for him to counter any immediate moves against him. At the same time, Johnson’s schedule at the G-7 and NATO summits may dissuade rebels from challenging him when he’s engaged in geopolitics.
Amid the ongoing furore over his personal conduct, it could well be the economy that now poses the greater threat to Johnson -- and his party. With inflation surging, voters are struggling to pay spiraling bills for basics like food, fuel and energy. The fall and winter are likely to see an even bigger squeeze on living standards as energy bills soar.
Speaking to reporters during his Rwanda trip on Friday, Johnson insisted it was common for mid-term governments to take electoral hits.
“We will keep going, addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch,” he said.
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