The Conservatives have lost two key byelections on the same night, with Labour taking Wakefield and the Liberal Democrats overturning a 24,000-plus majority to snatch Tiverton and Honiton, piling enormous political pressure on to Boris Johnson.
The Tiverton and Honiton result, where the Lib Dem candidate, Richard Foord, defeated the Tories’ Helen Hurford by 6,144 votes to take a constituency that has been Conservative in its various forms for well over a century, will particularly spook Tory MPs.
It is believed to be the biggest numerical majority ever overturned in a byelection, although there have been higher percentage swings in other seats.
A Labour win in Wakefield, where Simon Lightwood gained a 4,925 majority against the Conservatives’ Nadeem Ahmed, was more expected given Labour had consistently held the seat before the 2019 election, but nonetheless shows traction for Keir Starmer in “red wall” seats.
The byelections were called after the respective MPs resigned in disgrace. Imran Ahmad Khan stepped down in Wakefield having been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy, while Neil Parish quit in Tiverton and Honiton after watching pornography in the Commons.
Johnson is in Rwanda for the Commonwealth heads of government summit, before travelling to the G7 and Nato summits in Germany and Spain, keeping him out of the country for the next week. But in his absence, the double loss could push Tory backbenchers to try to restart efforts to oust him.
After this month’s confidence vote in which 148 Tory MPs sought to remove Johnson, with 211 supporting him, under party rules he is safe from a similar challenge for a year. However, these rules can be changed.
The result is another landmark for the Lib Dems, who took the similarly rural, Brexit-minded Tory seat of North Shropshire in a byelection in December, overturning a Tory majority of nearly 23,000 to win after the former MP Owen Paterson quit over a lobbying scandal.
This followed a win for the Lib Dems in June last year in Chesham and Amersham, a commuter-belt constituency to the north-west of London, prompting worries among Tory MPs that dozens of similar “blue wall” seats could fall amid widespread dislike of Johnson among more liberal-minded Conservative voters.
A sense that Johnson is no longer an electoral asset, coupled with the controversies over lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties that prompted the initial confidence vote, could result in Tory MPs turning decisively against the prime minister, although a new challenge is viewed as unlikely before autumn.