By Jamie Dettmer
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took “personal responsibility” Friday for the rout of his Conservatives in a by-election for a seat his ruling party had held for 189 years.
In an extraordinary victory in North Shropshire, a mainly rural constituency in the English Midlands, the Liberal Democrats benefited from a 34 percent voter swing, the biggest in a by-election since the Second World War. After the result was announced, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Helen Morgan, said the party was over for Johnson, and she punctured a balloon with his name on it to illustrate her point.
The scale of the defeat, which saw Morgan overturn a huge Conservative majority to triumph in a contest sparked by the resignation of a former cabinet minister after a lobbying scandal, is sending political shockwaves through British politics.
And it is leaving surprised Conservatives mulling over whether Johnson has now become an electoral liability rather than an asset and needs to be replaced. Boris Johnson was chosen largely as Conservative leader in 2019 because of his campaigning strengths and his ability to win elections. With his electoral magic now apparently waning, though, his grip on the party is weakening, say Conservative insiders.
The loss of North Shropshire was preceded by a defeat in another by-election earlier this year for the Conservatives in the traditionally rock-solid Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham, which also was won by the Liberal Democrats candidate after a voter swing of 25 percent.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Johnson said: “Clearly the vote in North Shropshire is a very disappointing result, and I totally understand people’s frustrations. I hear what the voters are saying in North Shropshire and in all humility, I have got to accept that verdict.”
He added: “Of course I take personal responsibility.”
But Conservatives, also known as Tories, were lining up Friday to express their anger over the defeat. Many had said the by-election should be seen as a personal referendum on Johnson’s premiership. The Conservatives previously held the seat with a majority of more than 23,000, but the Liberal Democrat candidate won it by 5,925 votes Thursday.
Veteran Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale said the Tories lost “because the electorate wanted to send a very clear message to Downing Street that they were dissatisfied with the management of this government.”
Gale told the BBC: “The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes.” Gale said he had written to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which oversees Conservative lawmakers, calling for a vote of confidence on Johnson’s leadership. Fifty-four letters have to be received to trigger a parliamentary party vote.
Other fuming parliamentarians say they are holding off lodging letters, but they warned that Johnson is living on borrowed time and has just weeks to swing things around.
David Gauke, a former Cabinet minister, said he thought it unlikely there would be attempts to remove Johnson in the immediate future while the government is struggling to contain the worsening coronavirus pandemic, but he told reporters: “The North Shropshire defeat further weakens the prime minister and leaves him more vulnerable.”
Even Johnson’s supporters acknowledge he is now battling the biggest crisis of his tumultuous premiership. Voters have grown testy as he seeks to persuade them of the need for tougher pandemic restrictions amid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. A mix of scandals and reports of government chaos had added to the challenges.
Vengeful allies of his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May, whom he helped to oust, appear keen to topple him as party leader and consequently as prime minister.
The sizable libertarian wing of the party is furious over his handling of the pandemic. They organized a rebellion earlier this week that saw 102 Conservative lawmakers defy Johnson and vote against the reimposition of tough pandemic restrictions and the introduction of new ones, including vaccine passports to enter nightclubs and venues hosting large events.
Many voters in North Shropshire said in the days leading up to the ballot they had been infuriated by recent revelations about lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street held last December, at a time when social gatherings were banned for the rest of the country and thousands of Britons were prohibited from visiting elderly relatives or deprived of the opportunity to comfort family members dying in hospital wards from COVID-19.
Johnson’s showmanship, once widely seen as an attribute, also has been misfiring as the public mood has soured. Last month, a rambling speech at a conference of the country’s top business leaders led to widespread criticism. During the speech, he lost his notes, had to apologize for losing his way and extensively praised an amusement park, known as Peppa Pig World, compared himself to Moses and imitated the noise of an accelerating sports car.
The turmoil has helped propel the main opposition Labour Party to a nine-point lead in opinion polls, further roiling Conservatives. A cost-of-living squeeze and high inflation have added to the country’s darkening mood.
Some Conservative lawmakers said it is too soon to write Johnson’s political obituary, noting his skills as a political escapologist. “I wouldn’t bet against Boris Johnson,” said Charles Walker. But he cautioned during an interview with Sky News that Johnson “has got to do much better going forward.”
“Next year has got to be better — he can’t afford to have the next three months like the ones he has just had. He has to up his game,” Walker said.