Boris Johnson has insisted that he will “keep going” at No 10 despite the Conservative party’s crushing double by-election losses in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield.
The prime minister promised to “listen” to voters after the Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of 24,000 in Devon and Labor reook the west Yorkshire seat by almost 5,000 votes.
“It’s absolutely true we’ve had some tough by-election results,” he said. “They’ve been, I think, a reflection of a lot of things, but we’ve got to recognize voters are going through a tough time at the moment.”
Speaking in Rwanda, where he is attending the Commonwealth summit, Mr Johnson said: “I’ve got to listen to what people are saying, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living.”
Saying it was the “number one issue”, the PM added: “We’ve got to recognize 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.”
Mr Johnson also thanked departing Tory chair Oliver Dowden following his shock resignation on Friday morning. In an apparent reference to Partygate, Mr Dowden said he shared the feelings of Tory supporters who were “distressed and disappointed by recent events”.
A source close to the PM, who faces further trips to the G7 and NATO summits in the days ahead, told Politico that he was in no hurry to rush home to replace Mr Dowden as Tory chair.
“He’s got a big job to do and he’s doing it. Not opting out of G7 when the world faces an economic storm nor NATO when there is a war in Europe.”
Tory peer Lord Barwell, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff at No 10, said if the Conservative party carries on with Mr Johnson in charge it is “sleepwalking to a defeat at the next election”.
Mr Barwell said it was not too late for Tory MPs to replace their leader – interpreting Mr Dowden’s exit as a damaging blow to the PM’s authority. “I’m pleased that someone in cabinet has recognized that and has finally done something about it.”
Former No 10 adviser Tim Montgomerie, creator of the ConservativeHome website, said the “massive” result in Tiverton showed Mr Johnson had to go. “This is a crisis for the Conservative party,” he told Sky News.
He told Sky News that voters were “rejecting the character of the prime minister. And if the Conservatives don’t act soon… the whole Conservative party will be judged. We cannot let this situation continue”.
James Johnson, former pollster at No 10, said there was “only one person to blame” for the Wakefield result – pointing to Mr Johnson and Partygate as the main reason swing voters cited for opting for Labour.
The Lib Dems swept to victory in Devon, where Richard Foord overcame a Tory majority of 24,239 votes and won by more than 6,000 – the largest ever majority overturned at a by-election.
Leader Sir Ed Davey told LBC: “The message from Tiverton and Honiton, the people here in Devon, is that Boris Johnson must go. I think they’ve spoken for the whole of the British people and it really is time he left.”
Labour’s Simon Lightwood won in Wakefield after winning the west Yorkshire seat by almost 5,000 votes, overturning a smaller Conservative lead of 3,358 votes.
Sir Keir Starmer said the result showed that the country has “lost confidence in the Tories” and that his party was “ready for government”.