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The Tory party chairman resigned on Friday after it suffered two damaging by-election defeats. In a bombshell resignation letter, Oliver Dowden stressed that “somebody must take responsibility” for losing Wakefield in the “Red Wall” to Labour and the former Conservative stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton in Devon to the Liberal Democrats.
Election experts said the dramatic swing of almost 30 per cent from the Tories to the Lib Dems in the West Country seat was the worst Conservative performance since the Second World War in terms of the percentage majority lost.
Boris Johnson, who is attending the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda, responded to the double by-election defeats by saying he would “listen” to voters but would “keep going”.
He admitted: “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 added: “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.”
My letter of resignation to the Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/xd5MtM2o3n
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) June 24, 2022
In his resignation letter, Mr Dowden emphasised that he remained “loyal to the Conservative party” and added that his resignation was a “deeply personal decision that I have taken alone”. Mr Johnson is understood to have received the news shortly after he had finished a dip in his hotel pool in the Rwandan capital Kigali at 6am.
The Prime Minister was surprised to receive the call from Mr Dowden warning him that he was about to resign, according to a Tory source.
As Tory MPs digested the by-election outcomes, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, told the Standard: “Clearly these by-election results are pretty dire. The Prime Minister will now have to set out clearly to the country and to the party how he is going to move forward to resolve the very serious problems that the country faces. The parliamentary party and the Cabinet will then have to decide whether that is a satisfactory path.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who spoke to Mr Johnson this morning, tweeted: “I’m sad that my colleague and friend @OliverDowden took the decision to resign this morning.
“We all take responsibility for the results and I’m determined to continue working to tackle the cost of living, including delivering NICs changes, saving 30 million people on average £330”.
However, Mr Johnson soon faced the threat of another possible leadership contest after Mr Dowden’s departure. In his resignation letter, he emphasised that he remained “loyal to the Conservative Party” — pointedly not pledging continuing support for the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson won a confidence vote by 211 to 148 at the start of June and the current party rules mean that a fresh ballot cannot happen for another year.
However, the 1922 executive can change the rules or the Cabinet could move to oust Mr Johnson, as happened with Margaret Thatcher.
However, there were no signs early that the Cabinet was preparing to do so.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4: “The by-elections, both of them, were the result of the perfect storm of very difficult local scenarios, given the situations of the previously sitting Conservative MPs, plus the national headwinds, first of all, inevitably, for a mid-term government, but also, frankly, the distractions that we’ve had,” seemingly referring to the partygate scandal.
He stressed that the Government needed to “spend the next two years absolutely relentlessly focused on delivering our plan” on the economy, fighting crime, the Ukraine conflict and other crises and major issues.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told LBC Radio: “We are carrying on, working to grow our economy and address the cost of living... and providing the leadership that we need in challenging times.”
But some Tory MPs, who are critics of the PM, were swift to voice support for Mr Dowden. Simon Hoare, chairman of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, tweeted: “@OliverDowden is not to blame for these results. Since 2015 I have always been proud to call Oliver a friend. Never more so than today.”
Speaking in Wakefield, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories. This is a huge swing to Labour and vindicates how for the last two years we have been changing the Labour Party.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said it was “time for Conservative MPs to finally do the right thing and sack him [Mr Johnson]”.
Elections are due to take place for the executive of the Tory 1922 committee within weeks and there was speculation at Westminster that the new officers may be more willing to move against Mr Johnson given that the electorate is backbench MPs, many of whom want the PM to go. The Tiverton and Honiton by-election was triggered by the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish after he was caught watching pornography in the Commons chamber. Liberal Democrat Richard Foord overturned a 24,000 Tory majority to win with one of 6,144.
In Wakefield, Simon Lightwood was elected with a majority of 4,925 on a swing of 12.7 per cent from the Tories to Labour.
The previous Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, quit after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy — a crime for which he was jailed for 18 months.
The two elections were the first chance for voters to give their verdict on the Prime Minister just weeks after 41 per cent of his own MPs cast their ballots against him in the confidence vote following the partygate scandal.