It’s not the poor results of the by-election that have put Boris Johnson under renewed pressure since early Friday morning. The Conservatives had always expected to lose two by-elections in Yorkshire and Devon on Thursday.
The real shock came about an hour after the urns were counted. It was only half past five local time when Johnson’s co-leader and Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden announced his resignation via Twitter. “Our supporters are disturbed and disappointed by what has happened recently and I share their sentiment. We cannot go on with business as usual. Someone has to take responsibility and in these circumstances I have decided that it would not be right for me to remain at my post.”
The last sentence of Dowden’s letter will give Johnson particular concern: “I will, as always, be loyal to the Conservative Party”. The party – but no longer the prime minister. If you want, you can see this as a declaration of war on the head of government.
Since Partygate began last December, dozens of Tory MPs have publicly called for Johnson’s resignation. At the beginning of June, 41 percent of the faction voted in a vote of no confidence against their boss.
But with Dowden, a member of Johnson’s cabinet is leaving for the first time. Because according to party rules, another vote can only take place in a year, it is the cabinet that can be really dangerous for the prime minister. If other ministers disembark after Dowden, Johnson will no longer be able to hold his own.
The bad news reached the prime minister in Kigali, more than 6,000 kilometers from London. Johnson is out of the country until the end of next week. He wants to travel from the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda to the G-7 meeting in Bavaria and then to the NATO summit in Madrid.
It is questionable whether his absence will benefit him in these delicate days. Members of parliament and ministers alike expect the prime minister to give them assurances after such an election defeat, to clean doorsteps in the lower house, to appear in public and tout concrete government plans. Instead, he spoke tersely on Friday morning from far East Africa, promising that he would “listen” to the voters. He will “continue and respond to people’s concerns”.
The fact that party leaders like former Tory leader Michael Howard join the long list of ex-Prime Ministers and top Conservative politicians who are urging Johnson to step down does not make the situation any better. “The party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership. Cabinet members should consider their positions,” Howard told the BBC.
Critics agree that the defeats in the two demographically very different districts are not solely due to Partygate. The patience of voters who helped Johnson to a landslide victory in 2019 and the party’s largest majority in 30 years has run out.
The Prime Minister may call the results “the typical midterm blues. But the truth is that this administration has no purpose, no coherent program, no answer to the skyrocketing cost of living,” party insider Tim Montgomerie explains.
The Conservatives are headed for defeat in the next general election, warned ex-Attorney General David Gauke. “The best chance to straighten this out is to overthrow the prime minister,” Gauke told Sky News.
Most recently, inflation rose to nine percent, and eleven percent are forecast for the fall. Low earners are particularly hard hit by high energy prices, which have doubled since the beginning of the year and are expected to triple in the fall.
Railroad union strikes are currently paralyzing the country, and teachers and NHS workers could follow suit. However, these challenges could also be a reason for Johnson’s rivals within the party not to throw their hats in the ring and then have to pull the cart out of the deep mud.
The by-elections in Devon and Yorkshire were necessary following sex scandals involving the two incumbent Tory MPs. One had watched pornography during a debate in the House of Commons, the other had been sentenced to prison for sexually abusing a minor.
The Devon defeat is historic because the Conservatives held the district for a hundred years. The Liberal Democrats managed to turn a Tory majority of 24,000 into a majority of 22,000 for their candidate.
The Labor Party came to power again in Yorkshire, having lost its traditional seat in the 2019 general election, in which Johnson was able to win many iron Labor mandates for his Conservatives for the first time. Since Friday, however, both the “Red Wall” in the less affluent north of England and the “Blue Wall” in the wealthy south-west have been crumbling.
Although Boris Johnson spent this black Friday at least physically far away from the elections, he did not escape unpleasant situations in Kigali either. At the Commonwealth meeting he met Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. According to the “Times”, which is always well connected with the royal family, he had privately expressed his displeasure with Johnson’s “Rwanda deal” a few days ago.
The UK government’s agreement to fly out asylum seekers who have illegally entered the UK is “horrific” and “disappointing”. The prince was “not impressed” by Johnson’s policies, the Times said.
The prime minister announced on arrival in Kigali on Thursday that he wanted to openly debate his Rwanda plan with the Prince of Wales. “A lot of people see the obvious benefits. When I see the prince tomorrow, I’ll make that point,” Johnson said. Critics should view the plans without prejudice.
But Prince Charles rebuffed the Prime Minister on Friday. “As previously stated, we will not comment on the alleged comments and merely state that the prince is politically neutral,” a spokesman said. “Political programs are government affairs.”