LONDON – U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has suffered a stunning defeat in a parliamentary by-election that was viewed as a referendum on his government amid weeks of scandal and soaring COVID-19 infections.
Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan overturned a Conservative majority of almost 23,000 votes from the last election to win Thursday’s contest in North Shropshire, a rural area of northwest England that has been represented by a Conservative almost continuously since 1832. The election was called after the former Conservative member of Parliament resigned following allegations of improper lobbying.
The result will heap pressure on Johnson just two years after he was reelected with a seemingly unassailable 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. His authority has been dented in recent weeks by allegations that he and his staff attended Christmas parties last year while the country was in lockdown, efforts to shield his ally in the lobbying scandal and suggestions that he improperly accepted donations to fund the lavish refurbishment of his official residence.
Against this backdrop, supporters and opponents are questioning Johnson’s handling of the pandemic after coronavirus infections soared to records this week as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept through the U.K.
“Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people,” Morgan said in her victory speech. “They said loudly and clearly, ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over. Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinized, it will be challenged, and it can and will be defeated.'"
Thursday’s result is the second by-election defeat for the Conservatives this year. The Liberal Democrats, England’s third-biggest party, in June won a by-election in Chesham and Amersham, a constituency northwest of London that had also been a traditional Conservative stronghold.
John Curtice, a pollster and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the Conservative defeat in North Shropshire was “pretty spectacular by historical standards,” noting that the party’s support plunged 34% from the previous election in 2019.
The only time the party suffered a bigger drop during a by-election was in 1993, when it was riven by internal division, he said. The Conservatives lost power to the Labour Party during the next general election in 1997.
“There is no doubting the size of this rebuff to the Conservatives and further evidence that the party has indeed now hit something of an electoral hole in the wake of those various scandals,” Curtice told GB News.
But whether this decline in Conservative support will spell the end of Johnson’s government is still unclear. Johnson is unlikely to resign any time soon, and ousting him would require support from Conservative lawmakers who want to hold on to their own seats in Parliament.
Johnson on Friday took responsibility for the defeat, saying the government’s work in bolstering the National Health Service and rolling out booster vaccines had been obscured by headlines about “politics and politicians” that have little to do with everyday life.
“I totally understand people’s frustrations ...” Johnson said at a vaccination center n London. “In all humility, I have got to accept that verdict. I understand that what voters want us as the government to be doing at all times is to focus on them and their priorities.”
The U.K.’s next general election isn’t scheduled to take place until May 2, 2024.
Johnson became prime minister almost 2½ years ago, riding his support for Brexit and his carefully curated image as a bumbling but likable politician.
He solidified his position by calling a snap election just five months later after Parliament rejected the withdrawal agreement he negotiated with the European Union. The Conservatives won 365 seats in the election, 80 more than all the other parties combined.
But Brexit is no longer the central issue in British politics.
Many voters are frustrated after two years of a pandemic that has claimed more than 145,000 lives, triggered a series of lockdowns and battered the economy.
Conservative lawmakers rebelled earlier this week, with 99 members of Johnson’s party voting against his proposal to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter nightclubs and large events. The measure passed only because the opposition Labour Party supported it.
Then there are the scandals and missteps that have made Johnson look more like someone who has lost control than his preferred persona of a slightly disheveled leader who's so busy he can’t be bothered to comb his hair.
He was forced to apologize last month after trying to change parliamentary rules to avoid censure for Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson who lobbied government agencies on behalf of companies he worked for. Paterson eventually resigned, triggering the by-election in North Shropshire.
Since then Johnson has been buffeted by a series of news reports alleging that he and his staff attended Christmas parties last November and December at a time when COVID-19 restrictions barred everyone else from visiting friends or even comforting dying relatives in the hospital.
Johnson initially stonewalled, saying that there were no parties and no rules had been broken. After a video surfaced in which staff members appeared to make light of the violations Johnson was forced to call for an investigation.
Even some members of his own party have now had enough.
Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker since 1983, said the result in North Shropshire was a clear indication that the public is dissatisfied with the way Johnson is running the government.
“I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance, and I think that the prime minister is now in last orders time,” Gale told the BBC. He has “two strikes already. One earlier this week in the vote in the Commons, now this. One more strike and he’s out.”