Boris Johnson learnt about the Conservative party’s crushing defeats in two UK parliamentary by-elections some 4,000 miles away, at the Commonwealth heads of government summit in Rwanda.
Britain’s prime minister reviewed the Tories’ losses in Wakefield in West Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon in the early hours of Friday at his hotel in Kigali. It was extremely painful for him and his party.
Johnson won an 80-seat House of Commons majority at the 2019 general election by wooing prosperous middle class voters alongside pro-Brexit blue-collar workers, but the by-election results suggested this coalition could be unravelling.
Labour, by winning Wakefield, showed signs of being able to retake so-called “red wall” constituencies in northern England and the Midlands that the Conservatives seized in 2019.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, by taking Tiverton and Honiton, demonstrated their ability to secure former Conservative strongholds in the south.
The by-election losses were compounded by the shock departure of Oliver Dowden, Conservative party chair. Dowden, who pointedly declared his loyalty to the party but not Johnson, said in his resignation letter: “We cannot carry on with business as usual.”
Speaking to the media on Friday after a morning swim, Johnson tried his best to put a brave face on events. He suggested the by-election results were linked to the cost of living crisis rather than his conduct in the partygate scandal.
“I don’t want to minimise the importance of what voters are saying, but it is also true that in midterms governments postwar lose elections,” he said. “We are facing pressures on the cost of living . . . spikes in fuel prices, energy costs, food costs, that is hitting people. We have to recognise that there is more that we have got to do.”
Johnson held a strategy meeting with advisers, dialling in chancellor Rishi Sunak from London.
The prime minister has insisted he will not cancel his visit to…
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