LONDON and KIGALI, Rwanda — If Boris Johnson was spooked by his party’s crushing by-election defeats Thursday night, he was doing his best not to show it.
The prime minister, 6,000 miles from London at a summit in Rwanda, simply donned his swimming trunks and hit the hotel pool early Friday morning, having been briefed by senior aides on the devastating Conservative losses in Wakefield and Tiverton — the latter the worst by-election result in the party’s long and illustrious history.
By the time he was out and dressed again, Johnson’s party chairman Oliver Dowden — once a close ally — had resigned, and with a stinging rebuke to his leadership. The prime minister and his team were blindsided.
“We cannot carry on with business as usual,” Dowden wrote in an open letter to Johnson. “Somebody must take responsibility.”
Johnson, who had said earlier in the week it would be “crazy” to resign over two by-election losses, vowed defiantly to “carry on,” but increasingly finds himself swimming against the tide of both Tory and wider public opinion. Earlier this month, more than 40 percent of his own MPs voted no-confidence in his leadership.
At a press conference in Kigali, Johnson shrugged off his domestIc woes, asking people to remember “the context in which we’re operating in the world,” mentioning price shocks, supply chain problems and food shortages.
“He’ll limp on until he bleeds to death,” sighed one senior Conservative activist.
Thursday’s twin defeats bode ill for the Conservatives’ electoral prospects, given the contrasting nature of the seats they represent.
In the post-industrial battleground of Wakefield, a northern city where Johnson led the Conservatives to victory for the first time in 2019, the opposition Labour Party won the seat back on a 13 percent swing. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Tories were “imploding” under Johnson’s leadership.
But it was in the greener pastures of Tiverton and Honiton, in the rural south-west, where the scale of Johnson’s problems were laid bare. The Tories had held different iterations of the seat for almost 200 years, but the Liberal Democrats romped to victory with an unprecedented 30 percent swing against the governing party — their third big win over the Tories inside 12 months.
The loss of both a northern working class seat and a south-west farming constituency could spell serious trouble for Johnson, who needs to retain votes at both ends of the country to win the next general election, expected in 2024. The Tories’ last two outright election victories, in 2015 and 2019, were down in large part to crucial victories in the south-west and north of England respectively.
“Conservatives should be very worried about the pincer movement which faces them,” Gavin Barwell, a former Conservative MP and top aide to ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, told the BBC. He warned that without change, the party was “sleepwalking towards defeat.”
Referendum on Johnson
There is little sign of Johnson changing course.
The losses are being chalked up as referendums on Johnson himself, with the prime minister’s reputation taking a hammering over the ongoing scandal about illicit parties held in Downing Street during the COVID lockdowns.
Those within the Tory Party who still see Johnson as an electoral asset hope he will put that and other ethics scandals behind him, and fight on to the next election.
“We’re going to be relentlessly focused on delivery and not allow the distractions of recent times to take our eye off the ball,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC in the wake of the two defeats. “There is no doubt that we’ve showed ill-discipline and collectively we need to reflect on that.”
But wherever Johnson goes, scandals seem to follow. And the message behind the scenes from senior Conservative figures appears to be to blame others, rather than accept the prime minister might need to change.
Senior aides noted Friday that former Conservative MPs in both seats were both forced out in disgrace — one was convinced of sexual offenses, the other quit after looking at porn in the House of Commons — and attacked the media for obsessing about the lockdown parties scandal.
“I don’t think feeding people a diet of Partygate helps people understand what this government is doing,” said one senior official. “The endless reportage and Kreminology is nonsense.”
Other loyalists insisted by-election losses were normal for a serving government in the middle of a term, and argued the voters would come back at a general election.
“Those who, for vested reasons, want to attack us will attack us,” one Cabinet minister said. “Your enemies are always going to come up with negative stories.”
But another Cabinet minister admitted Johnson needed to take better control of the narrative. “We need to make sure we’ve got a disciplined, focused message for the next general election that will make people understand we’re on their side,” the person said. “We’re not there at the moment, but I think we’ll get there.”
The question now is whether Johnson will make it through to the next election at all. Some critical backbenchers who tried to oust him in the confidence vote earlier this month will use this week’s losses to argue for a change in the Conservative rulebook, allowing a fresh attempt in the near future.
Johnson’s allies will fight such a move, insisting it could put the Conservatives at greater electoral threat. “We need to calm down,” the second Cabinet minister quoted above said. “If we lose our heads we’ll do the country no favors.”
At the very least, Johnson will face pressure from warring factions of the Conservative movement to lean towards their respective political ideologies.
“It’s absolutely crucial that he brings people into the Cabinet who are committed to open principles of lower taxes and trusting people to live their own lives,” said one minister. “It’s for the PM to decide whether this last couple of months are the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.”