LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a striking political victory on Friday when his Conservative Party snatched a parliamentary seat from the opposition Labor Party, which had held it since the constituency was established in the 1970s.
In a by-election in Hartlepool, north-east England, Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer scored a convincing victory, garnering nearly twice as many votes as his Labor rival and consolidating Mr Johnson’s earlier successes in winning over voters in working-class areas that had traditionally sided with mostly Labor.
Better yet for the prime minister, Thursday’s vote came after days of publicity over allegations he broke electoral rules to fund a costly renovation of his apartment.
It seemed to have meant little to voters in Hartlepool, an economically struggling coastal town, when the results were announced on Friday morning after an overnight count.
Instead, voters may have focused more on gradually easing Covid-19 restrictions in Britain after a successful vaccination program Mr Johnson was able to claim credit for.
While not unexpected, the result was a crushing defeat for the Labor Party, underlining how Mr Johnson is rewriting the UK electoral map and dealing a heavy blow to Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party. Mr Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn last year after Labor was defeated in the December 2019 general election, its worst performance in over 80 years.
This landslide Conservative election victory in 2019 followed the crisis surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union, and Mr Johnson has scored well in many mainstream working-class communities by calling on voters to give him the power to “Do Brexit”.
Although Britain has now completed its withdrawal from the European Union and the problem is fading somewhat, the Tories’ new victory suggests Mr Johnson remains popular in areas – like Hartlepool – who voted for the Brexit in a 2016 referendum.
“There is no sugar in this pill,” wrote Lucy Powell, a Labor lawmaker on Twitter, adding that “the challenges for Labor run deep and go far beyond Brexit and leadership. I don’t think most have any illusions about the magnitude of this challenge.
Known collectively as the ‘Red Wall’, because they were once the heart of the Labor Party, these areas are being targeted by Mr Johnson who has pledged to ‘ramp up’ by bringing prosperity to the north and center of England, as well as in some areas. who feel forgotten.
In fact, Labor would likely have lost Hartlepool’s seat in the 2019 general election by now if the Brexit Party, then led by Nigel Farage, had not fielded a candidate to run for it and won more than 10,000 votes, pushing away pro-Brexit voters from the Conservatives.
Labor lawmaker elected in Hartlepool at the time, Mike Hill, resigned his seat in parliament in March because he faces an employment tribunal over charges of sexual harassment, which he denies. His departure prompted the vote on Thursday.
Sitting UK governments very rarely win parliamentary by-elections, as voters often use them to express their dissatisfaction with their leaders. But there were also complaints about the Labor Party’s decision to introduce Paul Williams, an opponent of Brexit, in an area which had voted overwhelmingly in favor of it.
The defeat at Hartlepool could intensify the party’s left-wing attacks on Mr Starmer, although with no obvious alternative leader in sight he is unlikely to face serious difficulties.
The pandemic and the focus on the vaccination campaign have made it difficult for the Labor leader to raise his profile, but critics say he lacks charisma and a convincing political vision.
And the loss of Hartlepool will be keenly felt by Labor as he had been in the party since the current constituency was established in 1974. Among those who have represented the seat is Peter Mandelson, a close ally of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Moreover, Mr Starmer knows that if he is to become Prime Minister he must restore support in the north of England and the Midlands.
Voters voted in local elections on Thursday in many of these key areas, and plenty of results are expected on Friday.
Elections were also held in Scotland on Thursday and these could pose a greater threat to Mr Johnson. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the Scottish National Independence Party, is hoping for a solid performance she can use to justify her call for a new referendum on whether Scotland should separate from the UK.