Boris Johnson Says Tory By-Election Defeat Is His Fault
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson said he takes “personal responsibility” and understands voters’ “frustrations” with his leadership after his ruling Conservatives lost a Parliamentary seat they held for nearly two centuries following weeks of turmoil and plummeting poll ratings.
The Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of almost 23,000 votes to take the North Shropshire seat in the West Midlands that was previously held by former minister Owen Paterson. It followed a series of missteps by the premier that have badly dented his standing in the party and among the electorate.
“I put my hands up,” the U.K. prime minister told broadcasters in a pooled clip on Friday. “Have I failed to get this message across over the last few weeks, has it been obscured by all this other stuff? Yes it has.”
The collapse in Tory support heaps pressure on Johnson to prove to his own colleagues that he has a grip on government and can still be relied on to guide the party to victory in the next general election due by 2024.
But the damaging result comes at an especially sensitive time for the U.K. amid a record surge in Covid-19 infections fueled by the omicron variant that threatens to overwhelm the National Health Service this winter.
There was no sign of an imminent leadership challenge, with critical Conservative lawmakers instead opting to give the premier some time to turn things around. Johnson is on “last orders”, veteran Tory MP Roger Gale told BBC radio on Friday. “One more strike and he’s out.”
The special election was triggered when Paterson resigned in October after he was found to have breached Parliamentary rules on paid lobbying. Johnson’s attempt to protect him quickly backfired, and led to a damaging row over ethics and intense Tory infighting.
The premier was plunged deeper into turmoil after reports emerged of parties inside Downing Street last Christmas, when much of England faced strict rules on socializing. Then, Johnson suffered the biggest Tory rebellion of his tenure on Tuesday when 100 Tories opposed new Covid restrictions.
|How Boris Johnson could be ousted|
A no-confidence vote takes place if 15% of Conservative MPs (54) write to the chair of the so-called 1922 committee, Graham Brady. The current number of letters, which are safely locked away, is never revealed.
If more than 50% of all Conservative MPs vote in support of the prime minister, the leader can stay and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months.
If the leader loses the vote, they must stand down and any other Conservative MP can stand for the leadership. MPs and party members then decide on the next leader.
Conservative MP Charles Walker said the North Shropshire result came as little surprise after an “extremely difficult three months” for Johnson. “The prime minister has got weeks, months, a year to sort himself out,” he told Times Radio.
Parliament’s Christmas break, which began Thursday evening, offers Johnson an opportunity to reset his premiership. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the influential 1922 committee of rank-and-file Tory MPs, said he needed to “come back in the new year, deal with these own goals and start delivering.”
The result was a particular blow to those Conservatives in so-called safe seats in southern England who face strong Liberal Democrat opposition. In June, the Lib Dems defied political pundits to take another Tory stronghold -- the wealthy commuter district of Chesham and Amersham.
But the pro-Brexit constituency of North Shropshire had been seen as a much tougher challenge for the Remain-supporting party. Lifelong Conservatives had “turned to the Liberal Democrats in their droves and sent a clear message to the prime minister that the party is over”, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said.
Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan won 17,957 votes after a massive 34% swing away from the Conservatives, who took 12,032. The main opposition Labour party won just 3,686 votes, suggesting many of their supporters backed the Lib Dems to defeat the Tories in an informal alliance.
Special elections are known for being used as protest votes, to fire the government a warning shot between general elections. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major lost a string of by-elections during his premiership in the early 1990s -- including in Christchurch, Dorset, in 1993 when a Tory majority of 23,000 became a Lib Dem majority of over 16,000. The series of embarrassing losses ultimately set the scene for a landslide defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour in 1997.
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