The former Tory leader Michael Howard has called on Boris Johnson to quit and on cabinet members to consider their positions after a double byelection defeat and the resignation of a Conservative party co-chair.
Johnson, who is in Rwanda at a Commonwealth summit, said on Friday that he would keep going as prime minister despite losing the former Tory stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats and Wakefield to Labour.
But pressurehas begun to build on the prime minister after the resignation of Oliver Dowden as party co-chair and fresh criticism from senior Conservatives.
Johnson was taken by surprise by Dowden’s resignation, sources said. Dowden had been due to do the morning media round on behalf of No 10, a schedule he had known about for days, and was well aware that the party was expecting the worst from both byelections.
Howard, a senior figure in the party, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the prime minister should go. Asked whether he thought Johnson should resign, he said: “I do.”
He added: “The party and more importantly the country would be better off under new leadership. Members of the cabinet should very carefully consider their positions. It may be necessary for the executive of the 1922 Committee to meet and to decide to change the rules so another leadership could take place.”
Andrew RT Davies, the Conservative leader in Wales, also broke ranks to criticise the prime minister for the first time, having defended him after this month’s confidence vote. He told BBC Radio Wales: “Each and every day the prime minister gets up, like any leader, they have to look in the mirror and ask themselves can they continue to deliver for their country and for the people who have put them into office?”
Dowden, in his resignation letter, said he and Tory supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events”. In a pointed message he pledged his loyalty to the Conservative party rather than to Johnson and said “someone must take responsibility”.
The prime minister, speaking to broadcasters 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, thanked Dowden for his service as co-chair. He said he would take responsibility but that the cost of living crisis was the most important thing for voters.
“It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough byelection results – they’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things – but we’ve got to recognise voters are going through a tough time at the moment,” he said. “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.
“We’re now facing pressures on the cost of living, we’re seeing spikes in fuel prices, energy costs, food costs. That’s hitting people. 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.”
Asked if the defeat was because of his leadership, Johnson said the results should be examined in the light of Covid and the cost of living crisis.
“I don’t want to minimise the importance of what voters are saying, but it is also true that in midterm governments postwar lose byelections, I think if you look back to last May the truly astonishing thing was we managed to win Hartlepool in very different circumstances,” he said.
“What we need to do now is reflect on where voters are. And what they are basically feeling is that we came through Covid well and we took a lot of the right decisions there.”
Internal polling had shown that both Tory seats were expected to go, a result that No 10 believed could be put down to midterm blues as well as Partygate and the recent failed no-confidence vote in Johnson. “What happened between then and Friday morning is a matter for Oliver,” an exasperated party source said.
Johnson found out about the results of the byelection while in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, in the early hours of the morning. He went for a swim in the hotel pool – in place of his usual early morning run. He had returned to his room when his phone rang at about 6.30am. It was Dowden, delivering the news that he planned to resign. They spoke briefly and less than half an hour later Dowden tweeted his resignation letter.
The move shocked other members of the government, insiders said. Close aides found out on Twitter. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor and an associate of Dowden’s, was not aware of the resignation before finding out in an early morning meeting.
Before boarding a plane for Kigali on Wednesday night, Johnson described a suggestion that he should quit if he lost both votes as crazy. “Governing parties generally do not win byelections, particularly not in midterm. You know, I’m very hopeful, but you know, there you go.”
Asked to confirm that he was not considering his future, he replied: “Are you crazy?”
The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, said the government needed to listen very carefully to the results, but that factors such as the “distractions” of Downing Street parties had hampered its messaging.
“I think we have an incredibly positive agenda,” Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, stepping in for Dowden on the morning broadcast round. “The problem has been we’ve got too many other distractions, they’re well rehearsed, and what we need to have is two years where we’re relentlessly focused on the cost of living, the economy, reforms that we’re making.”
Johnson held a meeting with Prince Charles on Friday morning, his first since the heir to the throne was widely reported to have criticised the UK’s asylum deal with Rwanda.
Johnson is attending the official start of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting alongside Charles, who opened the event.