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Do these latest defeats leave Boris Johnson hanging on by a thread?

The Tories lost two more by-elections last night but what will it mean for the PM?

Johnson famously got stuck on a zip-line at an Olympic event in 2012.
Johnson famously got stuck on a zip-line at an Olympic event in 2012.
Image: PA Images

BORIS JOHNSON IS currently 4,000 miles away in Rwanda as his future as UK Prime Minister and Conservative leader is at growing risk. 

We’ve been here several times of course but the decision by Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden to quit this morning raises the stakes significantly

Dowden said in a letter addressed to Johnson that “someone must take responsibility” and whilst it was he that was resigning the impression was that Johnson should probably follow. 

As several UK commentators have pointed out this morning, Dowden’s backing of Johnson in a June 2019 article co-authored with now ministers Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick was crucial in giving Johnson added legitimacy as he bid to replace Theresa May. 

That article was also written at a time of Tory strife, with the three men concluding that “only Boris Johnson can save us”. 

Now that Dowden has stepped down amidst what he called “a run of very poor results” the question has perhaps flipped to who can save Boris Johnson.  

In referencing poor results as if they were a series of football matches under an embattled manager, Dowden was talking about the latest formerly Conservative parliament seats that have been lost to the opposition.  

In the last year there have been five by-elections involving outgoing Conservative MPs and the Tories have lost four. The only one in which the party retained seat was in the by-election that took place aftr the murder of Conservative MP David Amess.

tiverton-and-honiton-by-election New MP Richard Foord and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey celebrating this morning. Source: PA Images

The latest two by-election defeats yesterday were to Labour in Wakefield and to the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton.

Both votes are bad for the Tories for different reasons and that they have happened together represents the latest crisis in a series of crises that are now coming to define Johnson’s leadership. 

As has been well ventilated by now, Johnson’s thumping general election victory in December 2019 was built on the back of keeping Tory seats and flipping a series of previously secure Labour seats in the north of England. 

These Labour seats are what’s referred to as the ‘Red Wall’ and Johnson’s clear pro-Brexit message in 2019 resonated in a way that was seismic at the time. 

Johnson was therefore feted by Conservatives as a leader who could win otherwise unlikely voters and many dreamed of a string of such election wins. 

By-election defeat after by-election defeat has begun to remove that sheen and it is starting to become a serious problem for a Prime Minister whose selling point was of an election winner.

The result in Wakefield will give pause for thought to the northern Tories, elected with relatively slim majorities in 2019, who so far have largely backed Johnson, believing he won them their seats and could do so again.

Polling data since partygate has consistently suggested they were at risk but the concrete reality of a by-election defeat in a Red Wall area will have more of an impact than suggested by the polls.

The message from the result in Tiverton and Honiton is quite different however.

The mostly rural constituency is in Devon in the south of England and it has been a Tory seat since it was created in 1997.  

The Lib Dems are often on fertile ground in that part of the country and the Tories will be worried that the win could foreshadow more constituencies flipping that way in a general election. 

Last night the Lib Dems overturned a Tory majority of 24,000 and while the scale of that victory is highly unlikely to be repeated in a general election it will make many Conservative MPs nervous.

There are two factors common to both these by-elections that should concern Tory strategists.

One is the scale of tactical voting, with voters seeming to prioritise defeating the Conservative candidate over voting for their preferred one.

In Wakefield, the Lib Dems lost their deposit after barely getting 500 votes but the biggest effect was in Tiverton and Honiton.

Labour went from coming second in 2019 with 11,654 votes to third with just 1,564 as voters calculated that the Liberal Democrat was more likely to win.

It will be difficult to repeat that pattern across the country during a general election – it can be much harder to identify the favourite non-Tory candidate when attention is not focused on one seat – but even a moderate increase in tactical voting would spell bad news for the Conservatives.

The other factor is the fact that many Tories simply stayed at home. Some of this will be the impact of a by-election, when turnout is often reduced but the number of Tory votes fell by much more than the decline in turnout.

What this suggests is that the current Conservative tactic of trying to energise the party’s supporters with ‘red meat’, such as transporting asylum seekers to Rwanda or criticising trade unions, is not working.

The priority for most voters remains the cost-of-living crisis, something borne out in various opinion polls

What does it mean for Johnson?

While Dowden’s decision to step down as party chair does heap pressure on Johnson the departure of senior ministers would be far more damaging.

Right now that does not appear to be happening. 

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This morning, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak lamented Dowden’s decision to quit but made it clear he would not be doing the same. 

The most likely method for Johnson to be deposed is for the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee to hold a confidence vote in Johnson among party MPs that he loses.

Johnson only survived such a vote less than three weeks ago and the rules of the committee dictate that another such vote cannot be taken for another year. 

These rules can be changed however and if there was momentum behind such a change and Johnson was likely to be defeated he might step down first. 

If the 1922 Committee does not change the rules and he clings on for another year he would be overseeing a fractious party and facing rebellions in parliament.

Or he can call a general election in the hope he can demonstrate the election-winning ability that brought him to the premiership in the first place.

It would be a high-stakes gamble, especially at a time when the cost of living is soaring, but it may rapidly become his only faint hope of remaining in office.

- With reporting by Press Association

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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