UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has suffered a stunning defeat in a parliamentary by-election that is being viewed as a referendum on his government amid weeks of scandal and soaring COVID-19 infections.
Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan, a centrist representing England’s third biggest party in North Shropshire, overturned a Conservative majority of almost 23,000 votes from the last election to win Thursday’s contest.
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The Conservatives had won every previous election for the mostly rural area of central England since the constituency was created in its current form in 1983.
“Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said loudly and clearly: ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over’,” Morgan said in her victory speech.
“Our country is crying out for leadership. Mr Johnson, you’re no leader.”
Hours later, Johnson said he took personal responsibility for the outcome.
“In all humility, I accept the verdict,” the embattled prime minister said.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons described the defeat to the Conservative party as “seismic”.
“It’s so colossal for Boris Johnson because he’s been surrounded by scandals recently and they’ve made the most of it here really deep into Tory heartland,” Simmons said, speaking from Wem. “Here there is complete shock among many people.”
The election was called after the former Conservative member of Parliament resigned amid a corruption scandal.
The result, which the Conservative candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst has described as “deeply disappointing”, will heap pressure on Johnson just two years after he was re-elected with a seemingly unassailable 80-seat majority in Parliament.
But his authority has been dented in recent weeks by allegations that he and his staff attended Christmas parties last year while the country was under lockdown, efforts to shield an ally from allegations of illegal lobbying, and suggestions that he improperly accepted donations to fund a lavish refurbishment of his official residence.
Against this backdrop, supporters and opponents are questioning Johnson’s handling of the pandemic after coronavirus infections soared to records this week as the highly transmissible Omicron variant swept through the UK.
“This is personal: it’s about Boris Johnson,” Simmons said. “Johnson was a major asset when he took control of the UK in the 2019 election but now is he a liability? There is a serious cold draft going through Downing Street.”
By-elections are often used by voters to punish the ruling party, but the scale of the Liberal Democrat victory will be taken as evidence of deep public dissatisfaction.
Johnson still maintains a large majority of the seats in Parliament after a comprehensive 2019 election win built on a promise to “Get Brexit Done” that united traditional right-leaning Conservative voters with swaths of new supporters.
North Shropshire was a pro-Brexit, staunchly Conservative area. Analysts say Friday’s heavy defeat may further undermine Johnson’s authority over politicians already in open revolt over plans to introduce COVID-19 passports.
Britain’s next national election is due in 2024.
Voters in the by-election gave the Conservatives “a kicking” because they were fed up, Johnson’s party Chairman Oliver Dowden told Sky News on Friday.
“I think they wanted to send us a message and I want to say, as chairman of the Conservative Party: we’ve heard that loud and clear.”