British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow on Friday with his party's loss of two by-election seats.
It was a major setback to his hopes of retaining the opposition Labour Party’s working-class “red wall” seats, which the party took in the 2019 general election.
The first results were announced about 4am, when the Wakefield seat, in the north of England, fell to the opposition Labour Party, with its candidate Simon Lightwood elected with a majority of 4,925 votes.
It was shortly followed by the loss of the Tiverton and Honiton seat to the Liberal Democrats — it was previously a deeply Conservative corner of Devon in south-west England.
Mr Johnson has said he will “listen” to voters but will “keep going” after the Tories suffered a double by-election defeat.
Richard Foord won the Tiverton and Honiton seat by a majority of 6,144 votes, overturning the 2019 Conservative majority of more than 24,000, the largest majority to ever be overturned in a by-election.
Within hours Oliver Dowden resigned as chairman of the Conservative Party in the wake of the results, saying in a letter to Mr Johnson that “someone must take responsibility”.
The contests, triggered by the resignation of disgraced Tories, offered voters the chance to give their verdict on the prime minister just weeks after 41 per cent of his own MPs cast their ballots against him in a confidence vote.
Mr Dowden, who was expected to appear on the morning media round for the government on Friday, said in his letter to the prime minister the by-elections “are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party”.
“Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.
“We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
Mr Johnson sought to deflect from the by-election defeats being about his leadership.
He told broadcasters in Rwanda: “I think that what governments also have to recognise is that I don’t want to minimise the importance of what voters are saying, but it is also true that in mid-term, government, post-war, lose by-elections.
“I think if you look back to last May the truly astonishing thing was we managed to win Hartlepool in very different circumstances.
“What we need to do now is reflect on where voters are, and what they are basically feeling is that we came through Covid well and we took a lot of the right decisions there. But we are facing pressures on the costs of living.
“We are seeing spikes in fuel prices, energy costs, food costs, that is hitting people. We have to recognise that there is more that we have got to do and we certainly will, we will keep going addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said it is “important and right” the Conservatives have a “moment of reflection” following the by-election results while Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab described the losses in the by-elections were the result of a “perfect storm” of difficult scenarios, the headwinds of being a mid-term government and "distractions" such as Partygate.
In his victory speech, former Army major Mr Foord called on Mr Johnson to resign.
“Tonight, the people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain," he said.
“They’ve sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go and go now.
“Ours is a great country and there’s no greater part of it than Devon. But every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect.”
The prime minister, who is at a Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Rwanda, has already hit back at claims he should resign, calling them “crazy”, and said mid-term by-elections were “never necessarily easy for any government”.
The by-elections were triggered by the high-profile resignations of two Conservative politicians — one who admitted watching inappropriate material in parliament, and another found guilty of sexual assault.
Mr Johnson’s party won the industrial seat of Wakefield for the first time in 89 years in the last election.
The previous Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, quit after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy ― a crime for which he was jailed for 18 months.
Mr Lightwood said: “The people of Wakefield have spoken on behalf of the British people.
“They have said, unreservedly: Boris Johnson, your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated.”
The Conservatives' defeat in Tiverton, which has voted Conservative at every election for about a century, will send shock waves through the party after it won the seat with a majority of about 25,000 votes only three years ago.
Mr Johnson’s popularity has declined after he broke lockdown rules to attend parties at Downing Street.
A government losing two by-elections on the same day is extremely rare.
The last time it happened was more than 30 years ago when the Conservative government of John Major lost the seat of Langbaurgh in Cleveland to Labour and also Kincardine and Deeside in east Scotland to the Liberal Democrats in 1991.
It is only the seventh time a government has suffered such a double defeat since the Second World War.
However, the last time the Tories suffered such a double defeat while in power, they went on to regain both seats five months later in the 1992 general election.
Former Conservative MP and minister Rory Stewart said Oliver Dowden’s resignation “feels like the beginning of the end” for Boris Johnson.
Sharing a copy of Mr Dowden’s resignation letter, he tweeted: “A devastating resignation for Boris Johnson because it comes from one of his earliest and most passionate supporters, who backed many of his cultural fights, and risked his reputation defending him for years.
“This feels like the beginning of the end.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has said he will discuss the by-election defeats at a Conservative AGM (Annual General Meeting) on Friday evening and expects to make “difficult decisions”.
The treasurer of the 1922 committee said the Conservatives will then have “some difficult decisions to make, no doubt” on how to move forward.
Cross-bench peer Victor Adebowale has said the prime minster will be “very worried” by the results.
“By-election results are often seen as a bellwether litmus test as to whether the government can maintain some sort of momentum, majority and empathy,” he told Times Radio.
“We have got another 18 months until another election and things move very fast, so 18 months in politics is a long time, so this is a complex adaptive condition, but no doubt Mr Johnson is very worried.”
For many Tory MPs, Mr Johnson’s key appeal is his ability to win elections by bringing in voters who may never have backed the Conservatives before.
The loss of two very different constituencies — one in the Red Wall, one in a rural Conservative heartland — will cause some of his MPs to wonder if his electoral magic has worn off.
Before the result, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had said a victory for his party “could be the birthplace of the next Labour government”.
The victory for his party will help to silence his critics who questioned his leadership after the loss of their Hartlepool seat last year.
He has also faced a difficult few weeks for his leadership amid anonymous shadow cabinet complaints about him being “boring”, the lingering threat of the Durham Police investigation into the beer and curry he consumed on the campaign trail during lockdown and Labour divisions over supporting striking rail workers.
Labour needs to win back seats in northern England if it is to have any chance of victory in the next general election, so the Wakefield success will provide some encouragement — although there remains a long way to go.