LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday he took “personal responsibility” for a crushing by-election defeat in a constituency never previously lost by his Conservative party, which has prompted questions about his leadership after weeks of scandals. The historic loss in a seat Johnson’s ruling Tories held with a massive majority just two years ago came as, the government reported more than 93,000 new COVID-19 infections.
The figure was the third consecutive record daily tally as fears mount over the potential impact on the health system of the soaring case numbers. “I take personal responsibility,” the embattled Johnson said in a clip for television news, calling the vote in the North Shropshire constituency in central England that handed victory to the Liberal Democrats “very disappointing”. The electoral drubbing is likely to intensify the mutinous mood among Conservative MPs. “In all humility, I’ve got to accept that verdict,” Johnson said, insisting he understood “people’s frustrations” and “what the voters are saying in North Shropshire”.
The 57-year-old was already reeling from a series of scandals and setbacks, including around 100 of his lawmakers rebelling in parliament on Tuesday against the government’s introduction of vaccine passes for large events. His authority has also been hit repeatedly in recent weeks by claims of corruption and reports that his staff broke coronavirus restrictions last Christmas.
The Tories lost the safe rural seat, where they had a 23,000-strong majority since 2019, by almost 6,000 votes as the Lib Dems enjoyed a swing of 34 percentage points. “The people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people,” winning candidate Helen Morgan said in her victory speech.
“They have said loudly and clearly ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over’. The shattering defeat drew an immediate backlash from some Tory MPs and predictions that letters of no-confidence in their leader could be dispatched to trigger an internal party vote to remove him. The same process saw his predecessor Theresa May ousted in mid-2019 after MPs, including Johnson, voted against her Brexit deal in parliament.
“The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes,” long-serving lawmaker Roger Gale told BBC Radio. “Johnson has to prove that he’s capable of being a good prime minister and at the moment it’s quite clear that the public don’t think that that’s the case.”
However, others cautioned that surging COVID infections could buy the prime minister time to turn around his fortunes. “It doesn’t mean the end, and it certainly doesn’t mean leadership challenges,” said Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee, which collates no-confidence letters and manages any leadership contest.
“The Conservative Party is not going to have a leadership challenge as we are heading into potential further restrictions around COVID,” Walker added. Party chairman Oliver Dowden, also a government minister without portfolio, said North Shropshire’s voters were “fed up and they gave us a kicking” but that “we’ve heard that loud and clear”. “The prime minister is an electoral asset for the Conservative Party,” he insisted to Sky News. “On the big calls, (he) has the vision and the direction to get us through this difficult period.”
Dogged by controversies
However, Britain is also suffering spiralling inflation as a result of big borrowing during lockdowns, high energy prices and bottlenecked supply chains. Tax rises also loom from next April, which could further irritate the electorate. Johnson-who won voters’ overwhelming backing in 2019 on his promise to “Get Brexit Done”-has been dogged by controversies for weeks. It began with his unsuccessful attempt to change parliament’s disciplinary rules to spare MP Owen Paterson a suspension after he was found to have breached lobbying rules.
Paterson, who had held the North Shropshire seat since 1997, then quit, forcing Thursday’s vote. That crisis, though, was soon eclipsed by reports that Downing Street staff broke COVID rules last year by holding several parties around Christmas-just as the public were told to cancel their festive plans.
In a further episode in the saga, the senior civil servant tasked with investigating the party claims recused himself on Friday following reports of gatherings in his own department. “To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence the Cabinet Secretary has recused himself for the remainder of the process,” said a statement from Johnson’s Downing Street office. — AFP