Tory chair quits after by-election defeats, piling pressure on Boris Johnson

LONDON — Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden resigned early Friday morning after his party suffered spectacular losses in two U.K. parliamentary by-elections, heaping pressure on Boris Johnson’s already weakened leadership.

Labour regained the northern English constituency of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, where a 12.7 percentage point swing saw candidate Simon Lightwood win 48 percent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats defeated the Tories for the third time in 12 months, with candidate Richard Foord elected in the Devon seat of Tiverton and Honiton, in south-western England, with a 30 percent swing.

“Yesterday’s parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor result for our party,” Dowden wrote in an open letter to the U.K. prime minister. “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.

“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,” Dowden added.

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

Labour’s win in Wakefield, meanwhile, represents a first step back for the party in its former heartlands across the north of England — the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of seats which it lost to Johnson in the 2019 election.

Speaking in Kigali, Rwanda, where he is attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit, Johnson accepted the results were bleak for his party but vowed to “keep going” as prime minister.

“It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough by-election results,” Johnson said. “They’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things — but we’ve got to recognise voters are going through a tough time at the moment.”

It is only just over two weeks since Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence in his leadership of the U.K.’s ruling party, in which four in 10 of his MPs voted to remove him. Many said at the time that defeat in Thursday’s by-elections could trigger a fresh wave of demands for him to resign. The prime minister has been under pressure on multiple fronts, most acutely after he was fined by police and criticized by an inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street.

The Wakefield result was “a clear judgment on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas,” Labour Leader Keir Starmer said Friday morning, as he headed to Yorkshire for a victory lap. The other winner of the night, Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey, echoed the sentiment, calling his party’s victory “a wake-up call for all those Conservative MPs propping up Boris Johnson.”