Allies battle to keep Boris afloat as PM goes swimming in wake of by-election humiliation

24 June 2022, 11:41 | Updated: 24 June 2022, 13:39

Allies rally round Boris in the wake of by-election humiliation
Allies rally round Boris in the wake of by-election humiliation. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Cabinet allies rallied round under-fire Boris Johnson as it emerged he went swimming in the wake of the Tories humiliating by-election defeats and the resignation of his party chairman.

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Priti Patel told LBC the government will "crack on" despite the crushing defeats insisting the government had done "incredibly well" since the pandemic and would carry on tackling the problems it should "be focussed on".

Earlier, in the wake of the defeats, party chairman Oliver Dowden walked out saying he shared the "distress" of activists about the run of bad results and in what appeared to be a coded attack on the PM, saying the party cannot continue with "business as usual".

The PM, who is 4,000 miles away at a Commonwealth conference in Rwanda, pledged to "listen" after the huge by-election defeats in Tiverton and Wakefield, but tried to play down the huge blows as a difficult "patch" for the government.

And it emerged he went swimming in his Kigali hotel after hearing of the results although sources said he was "blindsided" by Oliver Dowden's resignation.

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It was a bad night for Tory supporters
It was a bad night for Tory supporters. Picture: Getty

No government has failed to defend two by-election seats on the same day since 1991, when John Major was PM.

Despite the pressure Mr Johnson earlier vowed to continue as Prime Minister, although he conceded the election results were "tough".

"It's absolutely true we've had some tough by-election results, they've been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things, but we've got to recognise voters are going through a tough time at the moment," he told broadcasters in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

"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.

"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."

Labour MP Simon Lightwood won Wakefield from the Tories
Labour MP Simon Lightwood won Wakefield from the Tories. Picture: Getty

Ballots were cast in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton on Thursday after contests triggered by Conservative MPs resigning in disgrace.

Wakefield - whose previous MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed in May for sexually assaulting a teenager - has gone to Labour.

Meanwhile Tiverton and Honiton, whose previous MP resigned after admitting watching porn in the Commons, went to the Liberal Democrats.

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Mr Dowden shared his letter of resignation in the early hours of Friday morning.

"Yesterday's Parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party," he wrote to the Prime Minister.

"Our supporters are distressed and disappointed... I share their feelings.

"We cannot carry on with business as usual.

"Somebody must take responsibility."

In Wakefield, new Labour MP Simon Lightwood received 47 per cent of the vote, 17 per cent ahead of thee Conservative candidate.

The new Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton - a constituency that has been Conservative since its creation in 1977 - won 52 per cent of the vote.

Richard Foord was 14 per cent ahead of the Conservative candidate.

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After winning Wakefield from the Tories, Mr Lightwood said "the next Labour government has been born in this room tonight".

"Tonight, the people of Wakefield have spoken on behalf of the British people," he said in his speech.

"They have said unreservedly: 'Boris Johnson, your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated'."

Labour leader Keir Starmer agreed, saying: "Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories.

"This result is a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas."

He added the Labour party was "back" and "ready for government".

Oliver Dowden quit over the results
Oliver Dowden quit over the results. Picture: Alamy

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey told LBC the result in Tiverton and Honiton 'speaks for all British people' and said Tory MPs need to "wake up" and oust the Prime Minister.

"We've just had the biggest by-election victory here in Devon," he told Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

"No majority of this size has ever been overturned in a by-election and so I'm pretty chipper today... the message from Tiverton and Honiton, the people here in Devon, is that Boris Johnson must go.

"I think they've spoken for the whole British people and it really is time he left.

"Conservative MPs have got to wake up, they have a Prime Minister who not only breaks the law and lies, but he has no plan for our country."

The PM previously told broadcasters: "I'm going to be watching the results with interest but always full of optimism and buoyancy but most seasoned political observers know that by-elections in mid-term are never necessarily easy for any government."

He went on to say: "Come on, it was only a year ago that we won the Hartlepool by-election, that everybody thought was… you know, we hadn't won Hartlepool for, I can't remember when the Tory party last won Hartlepool – a long time. I don't think it ever had.

"Governing parties generally do not win by-elections particularly not in mid-term. You know, I'm very hopeful, but you know, there you go. That's just the reality."

Despite his fighting talk, Mr Johnson will not be around to face the outcome, instead touring abroad for the next week with his wife, Carrie.

The pair began their trip in the Rwandan capital of Kigali for the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting.

They are then believed to be heading to Europe.

However, there are concerns the results could spark a new revolt against the leader, after having just faced a bruising confidence vote.

It comes amid the fallout of several other issues, such as the cost of living crisis, increased strikes and the government's controversial Rwanda migrant plan.

Labour supporters celebrate their win in Wakefield
Labour supporters celebrate their win in Wakefield. Picture: Getty

The by-election in Wakefield was called to replace Imran Ahmad Khan, who quit after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy - a crime for which he was jailed for 18 months.

Wakefield was one of the so-called red wall seats won by the Tories in the 2019 general election after being Labour since the 1930s.

In Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish - a Tory MP since 2010 - resigned after admitting he had watched pornography on his phone in the House of Commons.

New Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord and his wife
New Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord and his wife. Picture: Getty

The full results of the Tiverton and Honiton by-election are:

  • Liberal Democrat gain from Conservatives.
  • Richard Foord (LD) 22,537 (52.91%, +38.14%)
  • Helen Hurford (C) 16,393 (38.49%, -21.72%)
  • Liz Pole (Lab) 1,562 (3.67%, -15.88%)
  • Gill Westcott (Green) 1,064 (2.50%, -1.34%)
  • Andy Foan (Reform) 481 (1.13%)
  • Ben Walker (UKIP) 241 (0.57%, -1.06%)
  • Jordan Donoghue-Morgan (Heritage) 167 (0.39%)
  • Frankie Rufolo (FB) 146 (0.34%)
  • LD maj 6,144 (14.43%)
  • 29.93% swing C to LD

Electorate 81,661; Turnout 42,591 (52.16%, -19.71%)

The full results of the Wakefield by-election are:

  • Labour gain from Conservative.
  • Simon Lightwood (Lab) 13,166 (47.94%, +8.13%)
  • Nadeem Ahmed (C) 8,241 (30.00%, -17.26%)
  • Akef Akbar (Ind) 2,090 (7.61%, +6.60%)
  • David Herdson (Yorkshire) 1,182 (4.30%, +2.38%)
  • Ashley Routh (Green) 587 (2.14%)
  • Chris Walsh (Reform) 513 (1.87%)
  • Jamie Needle (LD) 508 (1.85%, -2.09%)
  • Ashlea Simon (Britain 1st) 311 (1.13%)
  • Mick Dodgson (FA) 187 (0.68%)
  • Sir Archibald Stanton Earl 'Eaton (Loony) 171 (0.62%)
  • Paul Bickerdike (CPA) 144 (0.52%)
  • Therese Hirst (Eng Dem) 135 (0.49%)
  • Jordan Gaskell (UKIP) 124 (0.45%)
  • Christopher Jones (NIP) 84 (0.31%)
  • Jayda Fransen (Ind) 23 (0.08%)
  • Lab maj 4,925 (17.93%)
  • 12.69% swing C to Lab

Electorate 69,601; Turnout 27,466 (39.46%, -24.69%)