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Oliver Dowden Has Resigned As Conservative Party Chairman After Double By-Election Defeat

4 min read

Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden has resigned from the senior position after the party saw major defeats in by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.

"Yesterday's parliamentary by-elections are the latest in a run of very poor results for our party. Our voters are distressed and disappointed by recent events and I share their feelings," he wrote in his resignation letter to Boris Johnson, issued just after 5.30am on Friday. 

"We cannot continue with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that in these circumstances it would not be right for me to stay in office."

The letter has already received praise from Tory MPs, with Northern Ireland Select Committee Chairman Simon Hoare writing on Twitter that it was "an honourable letter from an honourable man".

"Since 2015 I have always been proud to call Oliver a friend. Never more so than today," Hoare, who has been highly critical of the Prime Minister, said.

Dowden's resignation follows Labour's victory in the West Yorkshire seat of Wakefield — which was won by the Tories in 2019 for the first time since 1932 — in a major by-election victory for the party.

In Tiverton and Honiton, the Liberal Democrats have overturned the Conservative’s 24,000-strong majority in the “True Blue” seat in a major by-election blow for the government.

Shorly after the letter was issued, Boris Johnson, who is currently in Rwanda attending Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, vowed to "keep going".

The Prime Minister admitted that the by-election results were "tough" but that he will “listen” to voters. "It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough election results, they’re a reflection of a lot of things, voters are having a tough time," he said. 

Johnson also thanked Dowden for "excellent" service as party chairman and culture secretary. He is not due to return to the UK for several days.

Responding to Dowden directly, the Prime Minister wrote that he understands the “disappointment” over the by-election results.

But he insisted that the government “was elected with an historic mandate just over two years ago to unite and level up”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak offered his dismay that "colleague and friend" Dowden had taken the decision to resign, but appeared keen to look forward. 

"We all take responsibility for the results and I’m determined to continue working to tackle the cost of living, including delivering NICs changes saving 30 million people on average £330," Sunak tweeted on Friday morning. 

Richard Foord, the newly-elected MP for the Devon seat, said the result had "sent a shockwave through British politics".

"Tonight, the people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for Britain. They’ve sent a loud and clear message: It’s time for Boris Johnson to go. And go now," he said. 

This sentiment was echoed by Wakefield's new MP Simon Lightwood, who said following his win that voters had signalled to Boris Johnson that "your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated". 

Dowden's departure will likely raise fresh questions about Boris Johnson's leadership, which has been rocked in recent weeks after he faced a confidence vote from his MPs.

Earlier this month, Johnson narrowly avoided being ousted after Tory MPs voted by 211 to 148 to keep him in charge.

Dowden is a staunch loyalist of the Prime Minister, and publicly announced support for Johnson ahead of the confidence vote. He claimed at the time Johnson had "demonstrated real leadership in getting the big calls right" on issues like Brexit, vaccines, lockdowns and Ukraine.

It is understood that Johnson is not in a rush to replace Dowden as chairman. "[The Prime Minister has] got a big job to do and he’s doing it. Not opting out of G7 when the world faces an economic storm nor NATO when there is a war in Europe,” a source close to Johnson told Politico

The party chairman's depature will likely fuel speculation that further resignations could follow.

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