The Guardian view on the byelections: PM’s end draws nigh

·3-min read

To lose one Conservative seat may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. Byelections on Thursday at either end of England saw Labour recapture a northern “red wall” constituency and the Liberal Democrats storm a true-blue bastion in Devon. Unhappy with a blundering and lying prime minister in a cost of living crisis, the people spoke. The question is whether the Conservative party is listening. Mr Johnson’s biggest asset was his ability to attract voters. He now repels them.

Electoral losses on this scale are unsustainable in the long run. The 12.7% swing from Conservative to Labour in Wakefield would, if reproduced at a general election, deliver a Labour government. The Tory party would end up with 30-odd parliamentarians if it suffered the 29.9% swing from Tory to Lib Dems seen in Tiverton and Honiton. Yet Mr Johnson appears complacent, leaving Westminster for a week of summits abroad, with a promise that he will “keep going”. Given that Conservative voters won’t turn out for a Johnson-led party, this sounds more like a threat than a prediction.

The Conservative party chair, Oliver Dowden, had plainly had enough. He resigned, saying “somebody must take responsibility”. He knew his boss would not. The cabinet could do worse than take their cue from former Tory leader Michael Howard, and tell the prime minister he should step down rather than risk being deposed. Perhaps Mr Johnson can convince colleagues that Thursday’s results were just protest votes, to be reversed at the next general election. This is a risky bet.

Few voters know exactly what Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party or Sir Ed Davey’s Lib Dems stand for. But both opposition parties think many more Tory seats will be theirs for the taking if Mr Johnson stays in office. Two in five Tory MPs apparently agree, voting to remove Mr Johnson earlier this month. Britain is seeing a new era of non-aggression between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This is a good thing, as splitting the progressive vote has led to years of Tory hegemony.

Opposition voters at this moment appear willing to back whichever candidate is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. If local parties are ready to accept a level of self-sacrifice in a general election – Labour lost its deposit in Tiverton and Honiton as did the Liberal Democrats in Wakefield – then the Tories might find it impossible to win. There is a long way to go. The Wakefield result, as the pollster Sir John Curtice wrote, “provides less than decisive evidence of a new enthusiasm for Labour”.

If something feels like a crisis, it is effectively a crisis. Voters face the fastest drop in living standards since the 1950s. Rail strikes over pay have brought the country to a halt. Shutdowns loom in classrooms, courts and post offices. Families see a government that is not ready to help in a timely fashion with rising fuel and food bills. Britons could muddle through, but the collective resilience required for them to do so is vitiated by the prime minister’s divide-and-rule politics.

Mr Johnson should go. The only job he seems ready to work to save is his own. When he wrote of his hero Churchill that he was a “spoilt, bullying double-crosser … fascinated by only himself”, the description applied to the author as much as to his subject. Conservative MPs fret about the lack of suitable candidates to succeed Mr Johnson. Hostile Tories clearly want a leadership challenge before next June. Almost anything would be better than continuing with the status quo. No amount of cabinet reshuffles or overblown speeches from Mr Johnson will change that. It is incumbent on Tory MPs – for the benefit of their party and their country – to find, swiftly, a better leader.

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