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Warning to Johnson after shock Tory by-election defeat

Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats makes a speech after being declared the winner in the North Shropshire by-election at Shrewsbury Sports Village. Photo by Jacob King/PA

By Gavin Cordon, Sam Blewett and Matthew Cooper, PA

Boris Johnson has been warned he is in “last orders time” after the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive Tory majority to win the North Shropshire by-election.

Conservative support in the ultra-safe seat collapsed as the Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan sailed to victory by 5,925 votes, in another body blow to the Prime Minister’s battered authority.

Opposition parties and Tory MPs were quick to seize on the result as a verdict on the performance of the Government, after weeks of damaging headlines over “sleaze” and reported partying in breach of Covid rules.

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden acknowledged the voters had given the Government a “kicking”, but insisted Mr Johnson had the vision to get them through a difficult period.

But after the revolt earlier this week by 100 Tory MPs over the latest Covid restrictions, the veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale warned the Prime Minister was living on borrowed time.

“I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the Prime Minister’s performance and I think that the Prime Minister is now in ‘last orders’ time,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.

“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 that’s the case.”

With the mood in the party having been described as “sulphurous” even before the result, senior backbencher Sir Charles Walker warned a leadership challenge would be “completely self-indulgent”.

Under party rules, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, is required to call a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister if 54 Tory MPs submit a letter to him calling for one.

Sir Charles, who is the committee vice-chairman, acknowledged voters were “tired, angry, exhausted” but insisted it was not the time for a leadership contest.

“The Conservative Party is not going to have a leadership challenge as we are heading into potential further restrictions around Covid and difficulties around Covid,” he told the Today programme.

“That would be completely self-indulgent.”

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