UK Conservatives lose 2 elections in blow to Boris Johnson

Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

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Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative party has suffered a heavy double blow as voters rejected the Tories in two special elections

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special parliamentary elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics.

He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual,” and a former party leader said the country needed "new leadership.”

The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories.

The contests, triggered by the resignations of Conservative lawmakers hit by sex scandals, offered voters the chance to give their verdict on the prime minister just weeks after 41% of his own MPs voted to oust him.

“The people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain," said the area's newly elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker, Richard Foord. "They sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, and go now.”

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," said Dowden, previously a staunch Johnson loyalist.

“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party," he said, without offering an endorsement of Johnson.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who like Johnson was a strong backer of Britain's exit from the European Union, urged the party to remove him as leader.

“The party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership," Howard told the BBC.

The prime minister was 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as the drama unfolded.

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.

“I’m not going to pretend these are brilliant results," Johnson said at a news conference in Kigali. “We’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn. … When people are finding it tough, they send messages to politicians, and politicians have got to respond.”

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."

Pollsters had said the Tiverton and Honiton race was tight, but the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-vote Conservative majority to win by more than 6,000 votes. The election was called when the district’s Conservative lawmaker resigned after being caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons chamber.

Even with the defeats, which erode his already shaky authority among his own lawmakers, Johnson his party holds a large majority in Parliament. But Conservatives are increasingly concerned that the qualities that led them to make Johnson their leader — including a populist ability to bend the rules and get away with it — may now be a liability.

Ethics allegations have buffeted the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings while millions of others were banned from meeting friends and family during coronavirus lockdowns.

Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. A civil servant’s report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

He survived a no-confidence vote by his own party this month but was left weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.

Under party rules, Johnson can't face another such vote for a year, but Friday's defeats will increase pressure to change that.

“These are pretty dire results,” said Conservative lawmaker Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior member of the committee that oversees party no-confidence votes.

“Serious discussions will be had in the next few days and weeks and then we will all have to make difficult decisions,” he said.

Johnson also faces a parliamentary ethics probe that could conclude he deliberately misled Parliament over “partygate” — traditionally a resigning offense.

Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-time Johnson critic, reiterated his calls for the prime minister to quit now.

“The soul of our party is at stake,” he said.

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Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain, left, and Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain, left, and Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain, left, and Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he walks on stage to take his seat during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda. Leaders of Commonwealth nations are meeting in Rwanda Friday in a summit that promises to tackle climate change, tropical diseases and other challenges deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Dan Kitwood

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he walks on stage to take his seat during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda. Leaders of Commonwealth nations are meeting in Rwanda Friday in a summit that promises to tackle climate change, tropical diseases and other challenges deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Dan Kitwood

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he walks on stage to take his seat during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda. Leaders of Commonwealth nations are meeting in Rwanda Friday in a summit that promises to tackle climate change, tropical diseases and other challenges deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Kitwood/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Dan Kitwood

Credit: Dan Kitwood

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Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey, left, celebrates with Richard Foord, right, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton, in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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Labour candidate Simon Lightwood celebrates winning the Wakefield by-election, following the by-election count at Thornes Park Stadium in Wakefield, West Yorkshire Friday, June 24, 2022. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexual assault. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

Labour candidate Simon Lightwood celebrates winning the Wakefield by-election, following the by-election count at Thornes Park Stadium in Wakefield, West Yorkshire Friday, June 24, 2022. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexual assault. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

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Labour candidate Simon Lightwood celebrates winning the Wakefield by-election, following the by-election count at Thornes Park Stadium in Wakefield, West Yorkshire Friday, June 24, 2022. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexual assault. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

Credit: Danny Lawson

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The Liberal Democrats' by-election candidate Richard Foord gives a victory speech at the Lords Meadow Leisure Centre, in Crediton, Devon, England, after the result of the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, which was triggered by the resignation of MP Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons, Thursday June 23, 2022.(Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

The Liberal Democrats' by-election candidate Richard Foord gives a victory speech at the Lords Meadow Leisure Centre, in Crediton, Devon, England, after the result of the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, which was triggered by the resignation of MP Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons, Thursday June 23, 2022.(Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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The Liberal Democrats' by-election candidate Richard Foord gives a victory speech at the Lords Meadow Leisure Centre, in Crediton, Devon, England, after the result of the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, which was triggered by the resignation of MP Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons, Thursday June 23, 2022.(Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Credit: Andrew Matthews

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FILE - Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden speaks at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Party chairman Oliver Dowden quit Friday June 24, 2022 in the wake of two special election defeats for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)

Credit: Jon Super

FILE - Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden speaks at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Party chairman Oliver Dowden quit Friday June 24, 2022 in the wake of two special election defeats for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)

Credit: Jon Super

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FILE - Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden speaks at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Party chairman Oliver Dowden quit Friday June 24, 2022 in the wake of two special election defeats for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)

Credit: Jon Super

Credit: Jon Super

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Newly elected lawmaker for Wakefield Simon Lightwood, right, arrives with Labour leader Keir Starmer as Labour reclaimed the West Yorkshire seat from the Conservatives in Wakefield, England, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

Newly elected lawmaker for Wakefield Simon Lightwood, right, arrives with Labour leader Keir Starmer as Labour reclaimed the West Yorkshire seat from the Conservatives in Wakefield, England, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

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Newly elected lawmaker for Wakefield Simon Lightwood, right, arrives with Labour leader Keir Starmer as Labour reclaimed the West Yorkshire seat from the Conservatives in Wakefield, England, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural southwest England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Credit: Danny Lawson

Credit: Danny Lawson

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Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Credit: Frank Augstein

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A police officer guards 10 Downing Street as Larry the Cat, Britain's Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, walks in, in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

A police officer guards 10 Downing Street as Larry the Cat, Britain's Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, walks in, in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
A police officer guards 10 Downing Street as Larry the Cat, Britain's Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, walks in, in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Credit: Frank Augstein

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Dark clouds appear over the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Dark clouds appear over the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Dark clouds appear over the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Union Jack flags are seen surrounding the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Union Jack flags are seen surrounding the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Union Jack flags are seen surrounding the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, beside the Houses of Parliament in London, Friday, June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. He was further wounded when the party's chairman quit after the results came out early Friday, saying Conservatives “cannot carry on with business as usual.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Credit: Frank Augstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord celebrates in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord celebrates in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Combined ShapeCaption
Newly-elected Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord celebrates in Crediton, England, Friday June 24, 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a double blow as voters rejected his Conservative Party in two special elections dominated by questions about his leadership and ethics. The centrist Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority to win the rural south west England seat of Tiverton and Honiton, while the main opposition Labour Party reclaimed Wakefield in northern England from Johnson's Tories. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Credit: Andrew Matthews

Credit: Andrew Matthews