Boris Johnson vows to push on as voters ‘beat me up’ in by-elections
By Sam Blewett, PA Deputy Political Editor, in Kigali
Boris Johnson said voters can “beat me up” all they want but he will “keep going” after a double by-election defeat triggered a Cabinet resignation and renewed calls for his resignation.
The Prime Minister suffered a series of blows to his authority on Friday, including the resignation of Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden.
Mr Dowden quit as Conservative Party co-chairman, saying he and Tory supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and telling Mr Johnson that “someone must take responsibility”.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard urged the Prime Minister to resign for the good of their party and the nation, as he urged the Cabinet to consider resigning to force him out.
Conservative MPs voiced their fears of losing their seats after the Tories lost their former stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats and Wakefield to Labour.
But Mr Johnson said he was confident his own side was not plotting to oust him as he was attending a Commonwealth leaders summit 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, before heading to the G7 in Germany.
“There will still be some tough times ahead, no doubt people will continue to beat me up and say this or that to attack me,” Mr Johnson said.
“That’s fine, that’s quite right, that is the job of politicians.
“In the end, voters, journalists, they have no-one else to make their complaints to, I have to take that.”
The Prime Minister spoke to Chancellor Rishi Sunak by phone for his daily meeting after receiving a warning call from Mr Dowden following an early-morning swim at his hotel.
Moments later, Mr Dowden published his resignation letter: “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings.
“We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
Lord Howard said he “very reluctantly” came to the conclusion that Mr Johnson must be ousted, after Thursday’s elections showed he no longer has the ability to win elections.
The Conservative peer told BBC Radio 4’s the World At One programme: “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.”
Lord Howard, who led the Tories between 2003 and 2005, has not been an outspoken critic of Mr Johnson’s in the past, but did sack him as a shadow minister for lying about an affair.
Welsh Conservatives’ leader Andrew RT Davies suggested it was difficult to justify Mr Johnson remaining in office.
“I presume that’s getting far more challenging when the Prime Minister looked in the mirror these days with the messages that are coming from the ballot box such as by-elections we had last night,” he told BBC Wales.
Some 324 Tories were elected in 2019 with smaller majorities than the one secured by Neil Parish in Tiverton and Honiton constituency. His resignation over viewing pornography in Parliament triggered that by-election.
MPs including Conservative veteran Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who retained his Cotswolds seat with a majority of 20,000 at the last vote, raised concerns they could lose their jobs at the next general election.
“I think, factually, if I were to run under a bus today it would be difficult to hold my seat. There’s no doubt about that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Former minister Jesse Norman said Mr Johnson was insulting the electorate and making a decisive change of government at the next general election “much more likely” by prolonging “this charade”.
Veteran Tory MP and long-standing critic of Mr Johnson, Sir Roger Gale, said the Prime Minister had “trashed” the party’s reputation.
He told BBC Breakfast Mr Johnson was choosing to “hang on to the door handle at No 10” but “it can’t go on forever, and it certainly won’t go on until the next general election”.
Mr Johnson said he took responsibility for the losses, but tried to blame them on the cost-of-living crisis and the electoral challenges of mid-term governments.
“I think, as a Government, I’ve got to listen to what people are saying – in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which, I think, for most people is the number one issue,” he told broadcasters.
“We’ve got to recognise there is more we’ve got to do and we certainly will – we will keep going, addressing the concerns of people until we get through this patch.”
In the rural Devon constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, the Lib Dems overturned a 24,000 Tory majority to win, with a swing of almost 30%.
The contests, triggered by the resignation of two disgraced Tories, offered voters the chance to give their verdict on the Prime Minister just weeks after 148 of his MPs cast their ballots against him in a confidence vote.
A Conservative Party source said Mr Johnson was in his hotel pool by 6am Kigali time and was surprised to receive the call from Mr Dowden warning him he was about to resign.
The Prime Minister went on to hold his usual daily meeting with Mr Sunak, this time over the phone, and with chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris, the source added.
Despite the political drama, Mr Johnson was planning to stay the course in Rwanda before heading to a G7 summit in Germany and then the Nato meeting in Madrid.
“To not be at the G7 would be an abdication of responsibility for any prime minister,” the source said.
In West Yorkshire, Labour seized back Wakefield with a majority of 4,925 on a swing of 12.7% from the Tories.
The previous Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, quit after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, a crime for which he was jailed for 18 months.
Wakefield was one of the so-called red wall seats won by the Tories in the 2019 general election after being Labour since the 1930s.
The glaring differences between the two lost constituencies was one of the issues worrying Tory MPs.