By William James
LONDON -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives lost control of a parliamentary seat they dominated for nearly 200 years on Friday in vote that showed public dismay over a litany of scandals and stepped up pressure on him from mutinous lawmakers.
The defeat was described as “a kicking” for his Conservative Party, substantiating the fears among some that its reputation and electoral prospects are now suffering under Johnson.
The centrist Liberal Democrat candidate, Helen Morgan, won the North Shropshire seat by nearly 6,000 votes, overturning a 23,000-vote Conservative majority from 2019.
“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.
“Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated.”
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. Conservative lawmakers have been dominant in the region for nearly 200 years.
The huge swing comes as Johnson, a 57-year-old former journalist who won a large majority in a 2019 election on a promise to “get Brexit done”, faces criticism on several fronts, including over reports his staff held parties last Christmas when the country was in a COVID-19 lockdown.
“Voters in North Shropshire were fed up and they gave us a kicking and I think they wanted to send us a message,” Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden told Sky News. “We’ve heard that loud and clear.”
However, Dowden said Johnson was still an asset and would lead the Conservatives at the next election, due in 2024.
Opinion polls show Conservatives falling behind their main rivals, the Labour Party, following an outcry over lawmakers’ second jobs, criticism of the way Johnson funded the lavish refurbishment of his flat, and a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“This has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance,” Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Johnson, told the BBC. “The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes.”
Another Conservative lawmaker, who asked not be be named, said: “Serious questions now need to be asked on how the PM is going to get his house in order before we do it for him.”
The vote for the North Shropshire seat was called because the incumbent Conservative resigned after he was found to have broken rules on paid lobbying.
The government tried to prevent that resignation by changing rules designed to stop corruption in parliament. It was forced to backtrack after the move provoked a backlash over integrity and trust under Johnson’s leadership.
British voters often use such by-elections to punish the ruling party, but the scale of the Liberal Democrat victory suggests deep public dissatisfaction with Johnson’s government.
Opposition politicians have accused Johnson of being a serial liar and incompetent leader, and some have demanded that he resign.
The Conservatives still hold a large majority in parliament after the 2019 election win, which saw his Brexit pledges uniting traditional right-leaning voters with a swathes of new supporters.
Analysts say Friday’s defeat may further undermine Johnson’s authority over lawmakers, some of whom are already in open revolt over plans to introduce COVID-19 passports.
Any leadership challenge would require 54 of the party’s elected lawmakers to formally register their lack of confidence.