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Conservatives in the U.K. suffer an election loss in a setback for Boris Johnson

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The United Kingdom political alarm bells are ringing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Morgan, Helen Margaret Lilian, Liberal Democrats - 17,957.

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MARTINEZ: His ruling Conservative Party has just lost what has been considered a safe Parliamentary seat. That seat had been held by the party for nearly two centuries. For some analysis, we turn now to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, what happened last night?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. A, basically, what happened is Johnson's Conservative Party, also known as the Tory Party, got clobbered by the Liberal Democrats up in North Shropshire. This is a rural area west - in the west of England. It's between Birmingham and Liverpool. And the Tories have held it mostly since 1832. The last election, the Tories won the seat by 23,000 votes. Earlier this morning, the Lib Dems, they won it by 6,000. So this is a really big upset.

MARTINEZ: All right. Two questions, Frank - how are people taking this, and what does it mean for Johnson's future?

LANGFITT: I think voters in North Shropshire - I think people see this is a shot - basically fired a shot across Johnson's bow and basically said, you know, you need to change as prime minister, or you need to leave. There's been national anger, particularly this concept that Johnson and his government sort of seem to expect the rest of the country to follow rules regarding COVID, but they don't seem to apply to himself or his staff. And the most recent example - these revelations recently, A, of Christmas parties at No. 10 Downing Street...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Last year at a time when these were forbidden, and ordinary people were following the rules and couldn't say goodbye to loved ones who were dying. So Helen Morgan, she's the Liberal Democrat. She's the one who won the seat last night. This is what she said in her speech.

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HELEN MORGAN: Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They've said, loudly and clearly, Boris Johnson, the party is over. Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinized. It will be challenged. And it can and will be defeated.

LANGFITT: And, you know, A, it's not just Johnson's political opponents who say he's in trouble; even some of his own fellow Conservative Party members are saying this. This is Roger Gale. He's been a member of Parliament since 1983. And this is what he said to the BBC earlier this morning.

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ROGER GALE: The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes. We got rid of a good prime minister to install Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson has to prove that he's capable of being a good prime minister. And at the moment, it's quite clear that the public don't think that's the case.

MARTINEZ: You know, Boris Johnson has long been seen as a bit of a Teflon figure in British politics, like nothing sticks to him. Is that changing now?

LANGFITT: A, I think it is. People see these Christmas parties, actually, as a turning point and a part of a pattern. Earlier during the lockdown, one of Johnson's chief advisers got COVID and ended up driving around the country in total violation of the rules. Johnson wouldn't sack him. And his chief adviser - his name is Dominic Cummings - he refused to apologize. He gave a kind of notorious press conference to reporters where the tone was really pretty contemptuous of not just the reporters but the public. And the senses of some here is that his government feels like it's above the people.

MARTINEZ: All right, so what do you think? Can his - can he survive this?

LANGFITT: I think he absolutely can. I mean, I've been covering him for years, and he has this incredible ability to bounce back. Many don't see Johnson as a terribly serious person, but he's a proven winner. I think what he's going to need to do is change his tone and convince his own party that this defeat is not a sign of things to come.

MARTINEZ: NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "NECROLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.