By-election blues for Boris Johnson in first public test after scandals

Both Conservative-held constituencies could flip to support rival parties, humiliating the British prime minister

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Voters in two very different constituencies in England could deliver a double blow to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Thursday’s by-elections — the first major test of public opinion since he survived a vote of confidence and was fined for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Tiverton and Honiton in Devon and Wakefield in West Yorkshire will hold ballots, the results of which could bring about the downfall of Mr Johnson if the worst-case scenario plays out.

Following a series of scandals that has blighted the ruling Conservative Party in recent months, Mr Johnson is battling low levels of confidence among his own MPs, as well as harsh criticism from once staunchly loyal voters.

The chances of a government losing in two by-elections on the same day is extremely rare — the last time it happened was more than 30 years ago — but given the unique circumstances of the political landscape nothing can be ruled out.

Constituents in both areas will head to the polls from 7am, with polling stations closing at 10pm. The counting will take place throughout the night with results expected to be announced on Friday morning.

Tiverton and Honiton

The constituency, which covers a cluster of villages and market towns surrounded by farming country in Devon, is a traditional Tory heartland. Since its inception in 1997, residents have always returned a Conservative politician to represent them.

The most recent MP, Neil Parish, secured a majority of 24,239 in the last general election.

Mr Parish resigned as MP for the seat in May after he admitted to watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons. Voters in Honiton this week told The National the scandal had damaged their trust in the Tories.

Some said the embarrassing case of misconduct, along with the Partygate scandal, had forced them to rethink their support for the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have in recent weeks undertaken an ambitious campaign to flip the seat in their favour. They were forced to deny a secret pact with Labour to keep campaigning to a minimum in Wakefield — a former Labour stronghold — while throwing everything into their campaign in Tiverton and Honiton.

Richard Foord, who is hoping to be elected as the first Lib Dem MP to represent Tiverton and Honiton, told The National the party was fighting for every vote in the Tory bastion. He is favourite to win.

“It could be close but we are also feeling that there is some momentum moving away from the Conservatives and towards the Liberal Democrats as we approach the election,” he said.

For the Lib Dems to win it would take a swing of 22.8 points, or the equivalent of 23 in every 100 people who voted Conservative in 2019 switching to the party.

Wakefield

The seat in West Yorkshire is poles apart from Tiverton and Honiton in terms of its political DNA.

The constituency was one of the many bricks in Labour’s “Red Wall” that flipped to the Tories in the 2019 general election on the back of Mr Johnson's promise to deliver Brexit.

Labour had held Wakefield for 87 years before it was won by the Tories’ candidate Imran Ahmad Khan in 2019. Mr Khan, who won with a majority of 3,358, resigned as an MP in May after being convicted of sexually assaulting a boy.

A voter arrives at a polling station at Trinity Pre-School in Wakefield. PA

More than two years later, the mood among voters in the North of England is very different.

The cost-of-living crisis, rising fuel prices and increasing household bills have pushed many further into poverty. Some full-time workers have had to seek support from food banks because they do not have enough cash left for groceries after their bills have been paid.

To overturn the Conservative majority of 3,358, Labour needs a swing in the share of the vote of 3.8 percentage points — in other words, four in every 100 people who voted Tory in 2019 would need to switch to Labour.

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Updated: June 24, 2022, 4:52 AM
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