Defeat in either district would have been a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both increases jitters among restive Conservatives who already worry the ebullient but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.
Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying “our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.”
“We cannot carry on with business as usual,” he said. “Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he said, without offering an endorsement of Johnson.
The prime minister was 4,000 miles away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the results were announced.
The electoral tests came as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and food staples at a time of soaring consumer demand while the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
Speaking in Kigali, Johnson acknowledged the results had been “tough,” and said he would “listen to what people are saying, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living.”
Johnson won a big majority in a 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters — affluent, older and concentrated in southern England — and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern towns where many residents felt overlooked by governments for decades.
Thursday’s elections brought defeat on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton has voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from Labour.
Labour’s widely expected victory in Wakefield — whose previous Conservative legislator resigned after being convicted of sexual assault — is a boost to a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said it showed the party “is back on the side of working people, winning seats where we lost before, and ready for government.”