LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has suffered a stunning defeat in a parliamentary by-election that was viewed as a referendum on his government amid weeks of scandal and soaring COVID-19 infections.
Against this backdrop, supporters and opponents are questioning Johnson’s handling of the pandemic after coronavirus infections soared to records this week as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept through the U.K.
Thursday’s result is the second by-election defeat for the Conservatives this year. In June, the Liberal Democrat Sarah Green won a by-election in Chesham and Amersham, a constituency northwest of London that has been a traditional Conservative stronghold.
Johnson became prime minister almost 2½ years ago, riding his support for Brexit and his carefully curated image as a bumbling but likable politician.
He solidified his position by calling a snap election just five months later after Parliament rejected the withdrawal agreement he negotiated with the European Union. The Conservatives won 365 seats in the election, 80 more than all the other parties combined.
But Brexit is no longer the central issue in British politics.
Many voters are frustrated after two years of a pandemic that has claimed more than 145,000 lives, triggered a series of lockdowns and battered the economy.
Conservative lawmakers rebelled earlier this week, with 99 members of Johnson’s party voting against his proposal to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter nightclubs and large events. The measure passed only because the opposition Labour Party supported it.
Then there are the scandals and missteps that have made Johnson look more like someone who has lost control than his preferred persona of a slightly disheveled leader who’s so busy he can’t be bothered to comb his hair.
He was forced to apologize last month after trying to change parliamentary rules to avoid censure for Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson who lobbied government agencies on behalf of companies he worked for. Paterson eventually resigned, triggering the by-election in North Shropshire.
Since then Johnson has been buffeted by a series of news reports alleging that he and his staff attended Christmas parties last November and December at a time when COVID-19 restrictions barred everyone else from visiting friends or even comforting dying relatives in the hospital.
Johnson initially stonewalled, saying that there were no parties and no rules had been broken. After a video surfaced in which staff members appeared to make light of the violations Johnson was forced to call for an investigation.
Even some members of Johnson’s own party have now had enough.
Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker since 1983, said the result in North Shropshire was a clear indication that the public is dissatisfied with the way Johnson is running the government.
“I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance, and I think that the prime minister is now in last orders time,” Gale told the BBC. He has “two strikes already. One earlier this week in the vote in the Commons, now this. One more strike and he’s out.”
But Charles Walker, another Conservative member of Parliament, said the result was more about the anger and fatigue people are feeling after two years of the pandemic.
While he acknowledged that mistakes have been made, Walker stressed said it isn’t unusual for the governing party to suffer defeats in by-elections.
“Every time there’s a result like this people say it’s seismic, people say it’s a shockwave, it’s a tsunami of change, and sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t,” he told the BBC. “I don’t think we can read too much into this.”
This version corrects a misspelling in Owen Paterson’s first name.