Boris Johnson is “on hold” and could be gone within a year unless he cleans up and changes Operation # 10, senior Tories warn after Liberal Democrats scored an exceptional victory in the North Shropshire by-election.
Conservative party leader Oliver Dowden admitted on Friday that voters wanted to give the government a “kick” because they were “fed up” with “mud charges”.
But Johnson himself appeared to have no regrets about the parties’ allegations in No. 10 during the lockdown or the scandal over his attempt to water down the standard MP system that led to the North Shropshire by-election.
In an interview the Prime Minister said said he took responsibility for the loss but also accused the media and the public of focusing too much on “politics and politicians” rather than real issues.
Seasoned backbencher Roger Gale said Johnson was now in “last orders time” warning that “one more punch and he’s out”. Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Tory leader, told the BBC that the Prime Minister “drank in the last chance saloon” and that MPs wanted to “do a bit of a bloody grip”.
Other high-ranking Tory MPs vented their anger at what they see as self-inflicted defeat, and called on the Prime Minister to radically overhaul his Downing Street team. There was particular anger among Tory MPs on Friday over allegations made by Simon Case, the cabinet secretary who was tasked with investigating Party No. 10 during the lockdown a Christmas party in his own private office.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and cabinet secretary, urged rebels to stop talking about a new leader, but also warned Johnson would have to make changes to Worker No. 10 over alleged lockdown rule violations.
“The prime minister just needs to be really strong and show us that he has not only disapproved, but is ready to get rid of people who break these rules so that he can move on,” he told the BBC. “He has to be on the front lines as a big political seller, not get stuck, apologize and find out what’s going on. That’s never good for a leader, no matter how good he is. But it has to be in advance. “
Tory MPs are calling for changes in Johnson’s staff, despite allegations that the Prime Minister himself knew of and was present at meetings to lift the lockdown.
A former Tory cabinet minister warned Johnson’s operation of change. He said Johnson still has a chance to resign as prime minister, but added: “There are those who say Boris cannot change. And the consequence of this is a probability of more than 50% that he will be dead by the end of next year. “
Underlining the need for Johnson to revise his approach, they said, “The old Boris brand, the old Boris-Shtick, no longer works.”
Another Conservative former cabinet minister said MPs were already discussing how to get the prime minister to change his top team, and in particular expressed reservations about his chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield. He said MPs would relay a message to Johnson to shake up his operations and consult with MPs, the level of dissatisfaction being evident after 100 rebelled against his Plan B Covid measures this week.
“He has to reevaluate a few things, especially # 10 itself … there are very inexperienced people out there who would not behave as they clearly would have behaved if they had been more mature. The chief of staff obviously did not have sufficient oversight over them. It is student behavior that is not expected from people who work in the center of government. “
However, one minister said Johnson is unlikely to be able to change his approach. “He’s likely not going to come to terms with the basic questions he has to ask – he never has and I doubt he will. At some point people will no longer forgive him … He will be fired by me. “
Helen Morgan, the new Lib Dem MP for North Shropshire, secured the formerly safe Conservative seat with an exceptional swing of 34%. It won 17,957 votes, 5,925 more than Conservative Neil Shastri-Hurst, while Labor’s Ben Wood finished third with 3,686 votes. The turnout was 46.3%.
The by-election is the second the Lib Dems have wrested from the government in six months after winning in Chesham and Amersham.
Lib Dem Chairman Ed Davey welcomed the result: “From Buckinghamshire to Shropshire, lifelong Conservatives have turned to the Liberal Democrats in droves and sent a clear message to the Prime Minister that the party is over.”
In a subsequent interview, Johnson seemed reluctant to accept that his own behavior was the cause of the historic momentum against the Tories.
“What basically went wrong is that some things have gone very well in the past few weeks, but people have just heard a constant litany of things about politics and politicians: things that aren’t about them. It’s not about the things we can do to make life better, ”he told Sky News.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Brexit veteran Owen Paterson after a failed attempt by the Prime Minister to prevent his punishment for paid lobbying.
Johnson’s decision to endorse Paterson crystallized Tory MPs’ concern about his political judgment, and a number of missteps and scandals continued to weigh on his authority.
Labor has been ahead of the polls for the past few weeks, following news of a number of Downing Street parties.
At the same time, Johnson’s backbenchers have also become more and more rebellious and divided, with 100 of his own MPs voting against the Covid restrictions on Tuesday.
The sizable revolt against Covid passports and face masks in more public places has now made it difficult for Johnson to urge parliament to take further action against Omicron, despite a record number of cases recorded on Friday at 93,045.
Johnson’s team is hoping to relaunch their leadership after Christmas, with an emphasis on improving as Michael Gove releases his white paper. # 10 also focuses on the government’s booster campaign, with Johnson warning on Friday that a “big wave” of Omicron is now “coming through”.
A longtime Johnson supporter, Tory MP James Duddridge, insisted the by-election was just one example of “lumps and bumps” in the intergovernmental government, claiming the prime minister would weather the storm. “He gave us an 80-seat majority … we are getting beyond Covid and everyone is getting a little calmer. Yes, the voters kicked us. Yeah, the standard report was damn stupid. But mistakes are made. “