Voters in the English constituency of North Shropshire delivered a blow to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson when Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Morgan won with a majority of almost 6,000 votes.
It was close to beating the record for the biggest by-election swing against a government in 40 years.
Conservative support in the ultra-safe seat collapsed, another body blow to the prime minister’s battered authority.
Opposition parties and Tory MPs were quick to seize on the result as a verdict on the performance of the government, after weeks of damaging headlines over sleaze and reported partying in breach of Covid rules.
Mr Johnson said he takes “personal responsibility” for the loss.
At a vaccination centre at Hillingdon Hospital in London, Mr Johnson said: “I’m responsible for everything that the government does and of course I take personal responsibility.”
Asked which things going wrong under his watch were to blame for the defeat, he said: “I think that people are frustrated and I understand that … basically what’s been going wrong … is that in the last few weeks some things have been going very well, but what the people have been hearing … is just a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them and isn’t about the things that we can do to make life better."
He admitted to failing to get his message across over the past few weeks, saying: “I think my job is to get over what we’re doing more effectively and to show people that, as a result of the fastest vaccine rollout and the fastest booster rollout in Europe, that we’ve got more jobs than before the pandemic began …
“I’ve got to put my hands up and say ‘have I failed to get that message across in the last few weeks? Has it been obscured by all this other stuff?’ Yes, I’m afraid it has.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged the result was a setback for the Conservatives.
He said: ”Clearly the vote in North Shropshire is a very disappointing result.
“I totally understand people’s frustrations. I hear what the voters are saying in North Shropshire. 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 by-election was the first electoral test for Mr Johnson after being hit by a series of scandals in recent weeks, including allegations of a lockdown-breaking Christmas party at Downing Street, which led to a government aide resigning.
The ballot was triggered by the resignation of former Conservative MP Owen Paterson after the government failed in its attempt to block his suspension after he was found to have broken lobbying rules.
Mr Johnson's handling of Mr Paterson's actions prompted allegations of sleaze in Westminster.
The prime minister's woes continued on Tuesday when he suffered his biggest Tory rebellion over his Plan B Covid measures in a parliamentary vote. Mixed messaging from government and health advisers over social contacts have also dented his credibility.
Winning candidate Ms Morgan said that voters had sent a clear message to Mr Johnson that the "party is over" and said people are tired of the “nightly soap opera of calamity and chaos” from the Conservative government.
Mr Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, had a near-23,000 majority in the West Midlands constituency in the 2019 general election when the Conservatives achieved a landslide victory. Mr Paterson had held the seat since 1997.
On Friday the Liberal Democrats secured victory with 17,957 votes, the first time the parliamentary seat has changed party in nearly 200 years. Earlier this week, a voter in the constituency told The National they were planning to vote tactically to kick the Tories out.
Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, the Conservative party candidate, was second with 12,032 votes and the Labour Party candidate Ben Wood came third with 3,686 votes.
"Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said loudly and clearly, 'Boris Johnson, the party is over'," Ms Morgan said in her victory speech.
"Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated."
Ms Morgan said the result showed Mr Johnson was “unfit to lead” the nation.
“Instead of taking action to support Shropshire’s farmers, you spend your time misleading the nation on how you and your office partied during lockdown,” she said.
“Tonight the people of North Shropshire have said enough is enough. They have said that you are unfit to lead and that they want a change.”
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said the party paid the price in the North Shropshire by-election for a series of “self-inflicted own goals”.
Mr Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the backbench 1922 Committee, warned against a “big blame game” but said Mr Johnson needs to look at how he governs the country.
Oliver Dowden, chairman of the Conservative Party, admitted voters are “fed up and they gave us a kicking” but he dismissed the idea that Mr Johnson had damaged the Tories’ image, saying he “has the vision and the direction” to get the country through the coronavirus crisis.
He said that the by-election was held in “unique circumstances” owing to the Covid crisis and economic uncertainty and said Labour, the opposition party, should be expected to be making gains in such an environment.
“We see results like this mid-term, it happens time and time again,” Mr Dowden said.
“If the Liberal Democrats did as well in general elections as they do in by-elections they would be in power for the past 50 years,” he said. “It is the case that people have sent us a message, we’ve heard that message, but I wouldn’t extrapolate too much."
Questioned about the damning result in an interview with Sky News, Mr Dowden quickly switched to the government’s booster vaccination programme, pointing to the huge numbers of people being given a third dose each day.
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Lib Dems, called the by-election result a “watershed moment in British politics” and said his party had “brought some new hope to the whole nation”, not just voters in North Shropshire.
“We’ve shown that we can beat the Conservatives anywhere. We’ve beaten the Conservatives in two of their safest seats this year,” he told Sky News.
“I think people will be encouraged that Boris Johnson and the Conservatives can be held to account and Liberal Democrats can do that,” he said.
Mr Davey, who is isolating at home with Covid, said having spent 10 days canvassing in the area in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote, he got the feeling from locals that they felt “taken for granted” by the ruling Conservative government. They cited issues such as long waiting times for ambulances, difficulties getting GP appointments and the rising cost of living, he said.
“These are people who have played by the rules, always voted Conservative, and now they’re turning to the Liberal Democrats,” he said.
The Lib Dem leader said he was not surprised that Mr Johnson is “losing the support of life-long Conservatives” after the string of scandals in recent weeks.
In a separate interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Davey said the by-election result proved the public are "so fed up with Boris Johnson, so fed up with his incompetence and his behaviour".
A senior Conservative MP said Mr Johnson has to prove he is a capable leader, with the reminder that the Tories ousted his predecessor, Theresa May, to allow him into Number 10 Downing Street.
Sir Roger Gale, who has represented North Thanet since 1983, said if Mr Johnson cannot step up to the plate he will be replaced.
"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’s Today programme.
“We got rid of a good prime minister to install Mr Johnson. Mr 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.”
Tory MP Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, said he was not surprised by the loss.
But even though the result will cause further strain to Mr Johnson’s leadership, Mr Walker said he is unlikely to face a leadership challenge in the middle of the Covid pandemic.
“That would be completely self-indulgent,” he said.
Leaving the election count in defeat, Mr Shastri-Hurst was asked if the prime minister was to blame for the dismal result.
"We've run a positive campaign here, I'm extremely proud of the work that everybody's done. Of course it's a disappointing result for us," he said.
Asked if the party needs to change, he said: "We're 11 years into a Conservative government, by-elections are never an easy thing to do."