With the writing on the wall, the Tory candidate barricaded herself in a room to avoid the cameras

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Helen Hurford – With the writing on the wall, the Tory candidate barricaded herself in a room to avoid the cameras - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images
Helen Hurford – With the writing on the wall, the Tory candidate barricaded herself in a room to avoid the cameras - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

“She’s locked herself in a room”. As a defeated Tory by-election candidate barricaded herself in a Devon dance studio to hide from the press, Boris Johnson was about to wake up 4,000 miles away in Rwanda to the most difficult day of his premiership yet.

Disbelief spread amongst reporters and staff at Lords Meadow Leisure Centre as news spread that Helen Hurford, the Prime Minister’s pick to defend the ultra-safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton, was holed up and refusing to speak to anybody.

Guarded by an army of aides, she bunkered down for 25 minutes in scenes reminiscent of the occasion when, during a 2019 general election campaign visit to Pudsey in Yorkshire, the PM himself hid in a fridge to escape from the TV cameras.

Surrounded as she was by walls of mirrors, with an ever-growing press pack gathering just outside the door, she must have had ample time to reflect on suffering a record-breaking by-election defeat and the role Mr Johnson played in her downfall.

Boris Johnson joins candidate Helen Hurford at Ditchetts Farm in Tiverton, Devon - Andrew Parsons CCHQ / Parsons Media
Boris Johnson joins candidate Helen Hurford at Ditchetts Farm in Tiverton, Devon - Andrew Parsons CCHQ / Parsons Media

After a silent dash through the media scrum to the counting hall there was one final moment of indignity for the former headteacher turned beauty salon owner as, on her way up to the stage to have her fate sealed, she tripped and almost fell.

Ms Hurford’s early morning disappearing act proved the most memorable moment of a stumbling Conservative campaign that failed to spark into life, but it only spelt the beginning of a day of woes for the PM that cast fresh doubt on his leadership.

Minutes before the shock Tiverton and Honiton result, which saw Liberal Democrat Richard Foord overhaul a record 24,239 majority, news had filtered through that the Tories had also lost the Red Wall seat of Wakefield which went back to Labour.

Two hours later Mr Johnson woke up at his hotel in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to the news that he had become the first prime minister to surrender two by-elections on a single night since his Brexit nemesis Sir John Major back in 1991.

By 6.10am he was in the swimming pool, having already read most of the morning papers and digested the two by-election defeats. But his early morning dip was soon cut short by a bolt from the blue from one of his closest allies.

He was informed that Tory chairman Oliver Dowden, one of his most staunch defenders, had quit with a searing resignation letter that made clear he felt the PM must “take responsibility” for the disastrous results.

With a stinging sign off he pledged to "as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party” - a nod to the feeling among some Tory MPs that the Prime Minister must be jettisoned to spare them a massacre at the next general election.

Richard Foord - PA
Richard Foord - PA

Observers noted that the month of June was printed like most of the rest of the letter but Mr Dowden had written in the date of the 24th by hand, suggesting the document had been drawn up in anticipation of the crushing defeats.

Sources close to the Prime Minister said he was “surprised” by Mr Dowden’s resignation, not least because the Tory chairman had agreed to represent the party on the morning media round where he would’ve had to defend its leader.

The pair spoke on the phone before the letter was published and then Mr Johnson gathered his aides for a 7am crisis meeting which Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and the chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris dialled into from London.

Mr Johnson is in Kigali for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. He will then fly straight to a G7 summit in Germany followed by a Nato gathering in Madrid and won’t be back in the UK until the end of the month.

That long absence has fuelled Westminster chatter around a potential coup, but the PM’s allies insist he isn’t worried about his job and won’t return from his overseas business early. "He is not here on a jolly,” one said.

But with rumblings against his leadership growing ever louder at home there are those who think he will inevitably have to cut the trip short, whilst former leader Michael Howard became the most senior Tory to urge him to quit.

"The party, and even more importantly the country, would now be better off under new leadership. Members of the Cabinet should very carefully consider their positions,” he said in response to the double by-election loss.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a Conservative MP and the treasurer of the backbench 1922 committee, warned the PM he could face another confidence vote or mass Cabinet resignations if he doesn’t get a grip on the crisis now.

“What the Prime Minister needs to do is to come home and set out for the party and for the country, how he intends to resolve the really serious situation the country is in,” he told Times Radio.

"And when he's done that, the party will take a view as to whether they think that is in the nation's interest, or whether we should trigger a leadership contest and try and find somebody else.”

At the end of a gruelling day Mr Johnson had to face the media at a press conference in Kigali where he vowed to fight on through "tough times ahead" but said he “of course” accepts responsibility for the defeats.

Boris Johnson speaks at a press conference during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, following disastrous byelection results for the Conservatives in the UK - Dan Kitwood/PA
Boris Johnson speaks at a press conference during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, following disastrous byelection results for the Conservatives in the UK - Dan Kitwood/PA

"No doubt people will continue to beat me up and say this or that and to attack me. That's fine, that is quite right, that is the job of politicians," he told reporters.

"In the end voters, journalists, they have no one else to make their complaints to. I have to take that, but I also have to get on with the job of delivering for this country."

The Prime Minister was publicly backed by two members of his Cabinet in the aftermath of the results, with Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, saying they should not be “extrapolated across to read as a reflection on Boris Johnson's leadership”.

“History tells us how useless by-election results are as an indication of absolutely anything at all,” added Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, pointing out Margaret Thatcher would not have served three terms if she had been judged on such terms.

But others have lost faith that the PM can turn things around and the loss of Tiverton and Honiton, which was the 41st biggest Conservative majority in the country, has hardened the view amongst those backbenchers who fear losing their own seats next.

“A loss in Tiverton and Honiton can't just be shrugged off,” one Tory MP said. “It precipitates electoral disaster, which can only be avoided by replacing Boris Johnson with the better leadership the Conservative Party needs and deserves."

When the Prime Minister does eventually return from his travels abroad, he will be touching down in London to enter the fight of his political career.