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By-election defeats pile pressure on Boris Johnson’s leadership

Defeat in two crunch by-elections and the surprise resignation of the Conservative Party co-chairman has threatened to pitch the leadership of Boris Johnson into a fresh crisis (Dan Kitwood/PA)
Defeat in two crunch by-elections and the surprise resignation of the Conservative Party co-chairman has threatened to pitch the leadership of Boris Johnson into a fresh crisis (Dan Kitwood/PA)

Defeat in two crunch by-elections and the surprise resignation of the Conservative Party co-chairman has threatened to pitch the leadership of Boris Johnson into a fresh crisis.

The Prime Minister was resolute on Friday that he would not be going anywhere, as he defended his premiership at a Commonwealth leaders summit 4,000 miles away in Rwanda.

“There will still be some tough times ahead, no doubt people will continue to beat me up and say this or that to attack me,” Mr Johnson said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a press during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at the Lemigo Hotel, Kigali, Rwanda
Boris Johnson defended his premiership in Kigali, Rwanda (Dan Kitwood/PA)

“That’s fine, that’s quite right, that is the job of politicians.

“In the end, voters, journalists, they have no-one else to make their complaints to, I have to take that.”

The Prime Minister also insisted that such defeats were typical of mid-term governments.

But the resignation of Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden, after the Tories lost their former stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats and Wakefield to Labour, has reignited questions within the Conservative Party about whether and for how long Mr Johnson can cling on as leader.

Wakefield by-election
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer celebrated with new Wakefield MP Simon Lightwood on Friday (Danny Lawson/PA)

Mr Dowden quit as Conservative Party co-chairman, saying he and Tory supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and telling Mr Johnson that “someone must take responsibility”.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard also urged the Prime Minister to resign for the good of their party and the nation, and urged the Cabinet to consider resigning to force him out.

While Mr Johnson said he was confident his own side was not plotting to oust him as he was attending the summit, before heading to the G7 in Germany, some party members were vocal in their criticism.

Some 324 Tories were elected in 2019 with smaller majorities than the one secured by Neil Parish in Tiverton and Honiton constituency. His resignation over viewing pornography in Parliament triggered that by-election.

BBC handout photo of ex-Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday Morning
Ex-Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden told the PM that ‘someone must take responsibility’ (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

Conservative veteran Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who retained his Cotswolds seat with a majority of 20,000 at the last vote, raised concerns they could lose their jobs at the next general election, while former minister Jesse Norman accused him of insulting the electorate.

Veteran Tory MP and long-standing critic of Mr Johnson, Sir Roger Gale, said the Prime Minister had “trashed” the party’s reputation.

Despite some early speculation in the wake of the by-election results, Mr Dowden was the sole Cabinet minister to tender his resignation.

That has not stopped Tory rebels reportedly using the by-election defeats as the springboard for the latest attempted heave against the Prime Minister, with the Times reporting that opponents of Mr Johnson are planning a takeover of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers in a bid to change the rules to allow another confidence vote in his leadership.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism from opponents and party grandees back in the UK (Dan Kitwood/PA)

The departure of Mr Dowden may also prompt a reshuffle in the Prime Minister’s top team, with reports that Priti Patel could be asked leave her Home Secretary role to become party chair.

The Sun also reports that Matt Hancock, who resigned the day after photographs of him kissing advisor Gina Coladangelo emerged, could potentially return to Cabinet.

Sir Keir Starmer said on Friday that Wakefield would go down in history as the “birthplace” of the next Labour Government.

In West Yorkshire, Labour seized back Wakefield with a majority of 4,925 on a swing of 12.7% from the Tories.

Wakefield was one of the so-called red wall seats won by the Tories in the 2019 general election after being Labour since the 1930s.