UK: Open polls for byelections force the PM to face a double verdict

LONDON (Parliament Politics Magazine) – On Thursday, voters will give Boris Johnson a very significant verdict when the Conservatives defend their seats in Honiton and Wakefield in Tiverton. A double defeat is likely to rekindle rumours of a new challenge from Tory MPs.

Following the respective MPs’ disgraceful resignations, byelections were arranged. After being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy, Imran Ahmad Khan resigned from his position in Wakefield, while Neil Parish resigned from his position in Tiverton and Honiton after he was found watching porn in the Commons.

Before Khan won it for the Conservatives in 2019, the West Yorkshire seat had been reliably held by Labour, and on Thursday, Labour clearly is the favourite to win. In contrast, the Devon constituency is thought to be a tuck between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, despite the fact that the seat has been firmly Tory for over a century in all of its iterations.

Parish won in 2019 with a margin of victory of over 24,000 votes. Although there have been larger percentage swings, in case the Lib Dems win, it will be the largest majority ever to be overturned in this manner.

Considering the scale of the majority and the fact that Honiton and Tiverton would be another rural, pro-Brexit Tory bastion to switch to the Lib Dems in less than six months, losing those two towns is likely to upset Conservative MPs especially. Following Owen Paterson’s resignation as an MP due to a lobbying scandal in December, the Liberal Democrats won North Shropshire, defeating a nearly 23,000-vote Tory majority.

Chesham and Amersham, a so-called blue wall commuter-belt electorate to the north-west of London, which was previously a fairly secure Tory seat, was gained by the Lib Dems in June of last year.

Honiton and Tiverton is considered winnable, according to Lib Dem campaigners, although they are concerned that some disgruntled Conservative voters would remain at home rather than switch parties.

Despite the fact that neither Labour nor the Lib Dems have established any impression, both parties are running candidates in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, respectively, in an effort to increase their prospects of winning.

The prime minister has been under constant pressure this month amid lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and concerns over a sense of drift in the administration, which led to a confidence vote in which 211 Tory MPs supported Johnson and 148 tried to remove him.

Although ministers attempted to portray this as a resounding support, Johnson fared lower than Theresa May did in a comparable ballot, with 41% of his parliamentary party preferring a new leader.

Johnson has a 12-month challenge-free period under Conservative party rules, but they might be amended if there is enough support from Conservative MPs. A double byelection loss would be seen by rebel MPs as a major setback, which may lead to a renewed push to unseat Johnson in the fall. However, this appears unlikely in the near future.

Johnson has tried to refocus his premiership on topics that provide him the chance to win over his core supporters, such as legal disputes over the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, modifying human rights laws, and attempting to pin rail strikes on Labour.