British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under increased pressure after his Conservative party lost a traditional safe seat to the Liberal Democrats amid a slew of scandals and internal disagreements over COVID-19 measures.
The Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Morgan won 17,957 votes, trouncing Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst by 5,925 votes. It was a massive 34 percent swing to the Lib Dems in what was an ultra-safe seat for the Conservatives, who had a near-23,000 majority in the 2019 general election.
In her victory speech, Morgan, a 46-year-old accountant, said the voters in North Shropshire “have said loudly and clearly: ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over!’” She said Johnson’s government runs on “lies and bluster” and it “will be defeated.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey called the by-election result “a watershed moment” in British politics. “From Buckinghamshire to Shropshire, lifelong Conservatives have turned to the Liberal Democrats in their droves and sent a clear message to the prime minister that the party is over,” he said.
Johnson said the result was “very disappointing” and he takes “personal responsibility” for the loss.
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre in Hillingdon, he said he had failed to “get that message across” about the vaccine roll-out and had allowed it to be obscured by “a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians.”
The ballot was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who represented the constituency for 24 years until he was forced to quit in November after being found to have breached lobbying rules.
The Johnson government was accused of “corruption” and “wallowing in sleaze” after it attempted unsuccessfully to save Paterson by trying to revise the disciplinary procedures for MPs.
More lurid headlines followed soon afterwards, with Johnson facing an investigation over alleged partying in Downing Street during the lockdown and struggling to fend off allegations of lying about how the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat was funded.
The prime minister’s authority was further dented on Tuesday when 100 Conservative MPs defied his leadership to vote against the introduction of mandatory COVID health passes for entry to large venues—the biggest rebellion since he entered Number 10.
Commenting on the by-election defeat, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden acknowledged the voters had given the government a “kicking,” but insisted Johnson had the vision to get them through a difficult period.
But veteran backbench Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said the vote should be seen as “a referendum” on Johnson’s performance and warned the prime minister was “now in last orders time.”
“The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Another senior backbencher, Sir Charles Walker, called for caution and insisted it was not the time for an internal leadership contest.
A leadership challenge as the country faces potential further CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus restrictions “would be completely self-indulgent,” he told the Today programme.
PA contributed to this report.