By Alistair Smout
LONDON - Boris Johnson's Conservative party faces voters in two very different parliamentary seats on Thursday, an election test that, if lost, could renew speculation about the British prime minister's future after months of scandal.
The by-elections are in deeply Conservative Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England and the normally Labour-supporting northern city of Wakefield. The diverse constituencies reflect the breadth of Johnson's appeal in the last national election in 2019, which he won comfortably, when Wakefield voted Conservative for the first time in 90 years.
However, his popularity has plummeted since, with his fine for breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules and a mounting cost of living crisis among the issues cited by voters in the two electoral districts. Bookmakers expect the Conservatives to lose both.
Concerns about Johnson's leadership have already spurred a vote of confidence in his leadership, where 41% of his parliamentary colleagues voted to remove him, with many citing worries over the party's prospects in the next national election, likely in 2024.
"The Conservatives may now not only face the challenge of how to recover the support lost in the wake of Partygate and the cost of living crisis, but also that of overcoming an increased antipathy to Boris Johnson and his government," polling expert John Curtice wrote in the Independent.
Curtice said losing both by-elections would be "a sign of a government that is at risk of losing its electoral footing."
However, Johnson, speaking to reporters on the way to Rwanda for a Commonwealth meeting, rejected any suggestion he could be forced out.
"Are you crazy?" he said when asked if he would resign if he lost both seats. "Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not mid-term. You know, I am very hopeful, but you know, there you go. That's just reality."
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 abusing a teenage boy.
The Conservatives have held Tiverton and Honiton for about a century, and won a majority of more than 24,000 there in 2019.
The pro-Europe Liberal Democrats are attempting to win the seat and replicate their triumph in North Shropshire, where they overturned a similarly-sized majority in a rural district last year, though Curtice said that success for the Lib Dems is "by no means guaranteed".
In Wakefield, the opposition Labour party are favourites to win back the seat, seeking to overturn a Conservative majority of about 3,000.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Editing by William Maclean)