UK’s Johnson wins historic by-election on Brexit, vaccine bump

Jill Mortimer, Conservative party candidate for Hartlepool looks on during a visit to Hartlepool United Football Club with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Hartlepool, north-east England on April 23, 2021. (PHOTO / AFP)

Boris Johnson’s ruling UK Conservatives won a crushing victory in the parliamentary district of Hartlepool, riding a wave of local support from Brexit and the successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout to deal a major blow to the prime minister’s chief political rival.

The result in Hartlepool, which had voted Labour every time since the seat’s creation in 1974, is a huge boost for Johnson and shows support for the Conservative Party remains resilient despite the government coming under fire over its early handling of the pandemic and a recent slew of allegations against its integrity and competence.

Victory also marks another Tory gain in a former Labour heartland, adding to the so-called Red Wall seats that gave Johnson a big general election victory in 2019.

The result in Hartlepool, which had voted Labour every time since the seat’s creation in 1974, is a huge boost for Johnson and shows support for the Conservative Party remains resilient despite the government coming under fire over its early handling of the pandemic and a recent slew of allegations against its integrity and competence

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The Conservatives won 15,529 votes in Hartlepool, compared to 8,589 votes for the main opposition Labour Party. It’s extremely rare for the ruling party to gain seats from the opposition at a by-election.

“Labour have taken people in Hartlepool for granted for too long,” the newly-elected Conservative member of Parliament Jill Mortimer said in her victory speech. “People voted for that positive change, for jobs and investment.”

Pressure is now likely to intensify on Labour leader Keir Starmer, for whom Thursday’s votes across the UK represent his first electoral test as he tries to rebuild the party following its electoral drubbing under Jeremy Corbyn.

Johnson’s popularity has risen in recent months off the back of the vaccine rollout, with more than half of Britain’s adult population having received a first dose of the jab. Concluding the UK’s tortured departure from the European Union also boosted his standing in Hartlepool, where support for Brexit was strong.

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But in recent weeks, the government has been fighting off allegations of so-called “sleaze” — British political shorthand for scandals of corruption or other shady dealings — following revelations about the lobbying of ministers by the now insolvent lender Greensill Capital, and accusations of cronyism over how health contracts were awarded at the height of the pandemic.

Hartlepool was the only UK Parliament seat up for grabs in the “Super Thursday” votes. Due to the pandemic, two years’ of local elections were held across Britain in a single day, including for 143 English councils, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the mayor of London.