Oliver Dowden: the once loyal backer of Boris Johnson who became first to quit

Mr Dowden told the PM party supporters are 'distressed and disappointed' and he shares their feelings

Oliver Dowden, left, has quit as chairman of the Conservative Party, telling Boris Johnson someone has to take responsibility for the by-election losses.  AP
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Oliver Dowden’s resignation as chairman of the Conservative Party just hours after the Tories suffered a double defeat in by-elections will have come as a shock to Boris Johnson.

While Mr Dowden struck a polite tone in his resignation letter, and refrained from criticising the prime minister over the losses, he said “somebody must take responsibility”.

Mr Dowden, who is married with two children, has served as MP for Hertsmere in Hertfordshire since 2015. He was culture secretary and minister for the Cabinet Office before being appointed chairman of the party.

The cabinet minister was in the past fiercely loyal to Mr Johnson and seen as a reliable figure to be called on to defend Number 10 in the face of scandals.

In the end, it was the embarrassing by-election losses that pushed him to leave.

The Tories lost their former safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton in Devon as the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive 24,000 majority. Formerly loyal Tory voters in the rural constituency this week told The National their trust in Mr Johnson had waned.

In Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Labour won the former “Red Wall” seat back from the Tories who scooped it up in 2019.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson arrive for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Friday in Kigali, Rwanda. Getty

Mr Dowden had been due to appear on the morning media round for the government on Friday in what would have made for awkward viewing as he would be forced to defend the party amid plummeting public support.

In his resignation letter to the prime minister, he said 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,” he wrote.

“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.”

The MP ended his letter by saying: “I want to emphasise that this is a deeply personal decision that I have taken alone.

“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party.”

The contests, triggered by the resignation of disgraced Conservative MPs, offered voters the chance to give their verdict on Mr Johnson just weeks after 41 per cent of his MPs said they had no confidence in his leadership.

While other cabinet members have yet to follow Mr Dowden's example and quit after the humiliating by-election results, the gravity of his decision cannot be underestimated. The resignation of such a high-level Tory has sparked renewed criticism of the way Mr Johnson is leading the party and the country.

Former Conservative MP and minister Rory Stewart said Mr Dowden’s decision to quit “feels like the beginning of the end” for the prime minister.

“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,” Mr Stewart tweeted. “This feels like the beginning of the end.”

Senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood called Mr Dowden’s departure “honourable”.

The letter sent by Oliver Dowden to Boris Johnson following his resignation as chairman of the Conservative Party

Lord Barwell, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, said Mr Dowden’s decision to step down was “really significant” as it showed a shift among the Tories not previously seen, despite all the scandals.

“Finally, finally somebody in the cabinet has spoken up and said enough is enough, we can’t carry on like this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Lord Barwell described the result of the Tiverton and Honiton by-election as “catastrophic” for the Tories.

“Conservatives should be very worried about this potential pincer movement of the next election against them,” he said, pointing to Labour’s resurgence in the North of England and the Liberal Democrats’ increasing popularity in the South of England.

He said that if the ruling Tory party does not make a change “it is sleepwalking to defeat in the next election”.

Mr Johnson has vowed to “keep going” after the results. “I think as a government I’ve got to listen to what people are saying — in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which I think for most people is the number one issue,” he said on Friday.

“We’re now facing pressures on the cost of living, we’re seeing spikes in fuel prices, energy costs, food costs — that’s hitting people.

“We’ve got to recognise there is more we’ve got to do and we certainly will, we will keep going addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch.”

Speaking during a victory lap of Tiverton on Friday morning, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the prime minster had “shown no leadership, whatsoever” and urged Conservative MPs to remove him before the next general election.

“Boris Johnson has got to go,” he said. “But until the next election, the only people who can show Boris Johnson the door are his own party.”

“If you continue to allow Boris Johnson to drift along with no plan for our country — the Liberal Democrats will come after you, seat by seat,” he added.

Dowden 'did a lot of good', says PM

Speaking to reporters in the Rwandan capital on Friday, Mr Johnson praised Mr Dowden for his previous work and thanked him for his service.

Q: These are disastrous election results. Are you going to resign, and if not, why not?

Prime Minister: “First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Oliver Dowden, who’s just resigned. He’s been an excellent party chairman, was a very good culture secretary, did a lot of good with broadband roll-out, set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs.

“Yes, it’s absolutely true that we’ve had some tough by-election results, and they’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things, but we’ve got to recognise that voters are going through a tough time at the moment.

“I think that, as a government, I’ve got to listen to what people are saying, and in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which is, I think, for most people the number one issue.”

Q: Oliver Dowden says you can’t go on with business as usual and everything you’ve just said is what you’ve been saying for weeks. This is about you, it’s not about all the other stuff.

Prime Minister: “That may be your view. I think that what governments have also got to recognise is that, although I don’t want in any way to minimise the importance of what voters are saying, it is also true that in midterm, governments, postwar, lose by-elections.”

Q: Doesn’t this tell you that you were not, as you said, vindicated by the Sue Gray report? People are very angry and they voted to get you out; people have voted tactically to defeat the Conservative Party.

Prime Minister: “Look, as I say, you see historically in the last 50 years, more, you’ve seen governments being punished at the polls during midterm, when people are particularly feeling economic pressures. And I totally get that.

“I think that what we’ve got is the right way forward.”

Pictures: Boris Johnson in Kigali, Rwanda

Updated: June 24, 2022, 10:55 AM