LONDON - Boris Johnson's Conservatives lost two parliamentary seats on Friday, a crushing blow to the governing party that prompted the resignation of the party's chairman and intensified doubts about the future of Britain's prime minister.
In Rwanda for a meeting of Commonwealth nations, Johnson was defiant, pledging to listen to voters' concerns and do more to tackle a cost-of-living crisis after what he described as "tough" results in the two so-called by-elections.
The losses - one in the Conservatives' traditional southern heartlands and in a northern England seat won from Labour in the last election - suggest the electoral coalition Johnson brought together at the 2019 national election may be fracturing.
The transformation of Johnson from vote winner to electoral liability may prompt lawmakers to move against him again after months of scandal over COVID-19 lockdown parties at a time when millions are struggling with rising food and fuel prices.
Johnson has resisted intense pressure to resign after he was fined for breaking lockdown rules at his Downing Street office.
This month he survived a vote of confidence by Conservative lawmakers, though 41% of his parliamentary colleagues voted to oust him, and he is under investigation by a committee over whether he intentionally misled parliament.
"It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough by-election results... I think as a government I’ve got to listen to what people are saying," Johnson told broadcasters in Kigali after the results.
"We’ve got to recognise there is more we’ve got to do ... we will keep going addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch."
Following the losses in Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England, and Wakefield in the north, Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden resigned in a carefully worded letter that hinted he believed Johnson should take responsibility for the election defeats.
"Yesterday's parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party. Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings," Dowden said in a resignation letter to Johnson.
"We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office," added Dowden, a long-time ally of Johnson.
Several Conservative lawmakers tweeted support for Dowden, saying he was not to blame for the results in messages that suggested resurgent dissent against Johnson's leadership.
Although under his party's rules Johnson cannot face another confidence motion for a year, lawmakers fearing for their own futures may decide to reduce the grace period to bring about a second vote.
However, that might take time. It would entail changes to the committee that represents Conservative lawmakers who do not have government jobs.
A wave of resignations from Johnson's cabinet team of top ministers could also be another route for the prime minister to be forced out before the next national election, scheduled to be held in 2024. It could be called earlier.
The Conservatives lost a large majority of more than 24,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton, in a deeply Conservative part of southwest England, defeated by the centrist Liberal Democrats who secured a majority of more than 6,000.
The Liberal Democrats said the size of the victory suggested that other Conservative lawmakers may be at risk of losing their seats in the party's southern heartlands.
"If Conservative MPs don't wake up, I think at the next election, the voters will send them packing," the Liberal Democrats' leader, Ed Davey, said.
Winning LibDem candidate Richard Foord said in his victory speech that Johnson should "go, and go now".
In the separate parliamentary seat of Wakefield in northern England, the main opposition Labour party also defeated the Conservatives.
"Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories. This result is a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas," Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest majority in three decades at the 2019 national election, winning praise from his party for his ability to win in traditionally Labour-voting areas in north and central England.
But the loss of Wakefield could indicate that his ability to win again in these areas at the next national election has been compromised.
The by-elections were triggered by high-profile resignations of Conservative lawmakers - one who admitted watching pornography in parliament, and another found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London, additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill in Kigali and Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Toby Chopra)