Boris Johnson has been warned he has “one last chance”, amid speculation that letters of no confidence in him will be submitted following the Tories’ thumping by-election defeat.
Conservative MPs lined up on Friday to demand swift improvement in the Prime Minister’s performance after the Conservatives were humiliated in North Shropshire.
The Liberal Democrats won a commanding 6,000 vote majority on the back of a 34 per cent swing, marking the first time in more than 190 years that the rural, pro-Brexit seat has not returned a Tory MP.
Sir Roger Gale, a veteran Tory, declared that the by-election rout should be viewed as “a referendum on the Prime Minister’s performance”, as he warned that Mr Johnson was “in ‘last orders’ time”.
He told the BBC: “Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.”
His stark warning was echoed privately by colleagues, with some predicting that more Tory MPs would seek to oust him in the wake of the poll.
“A few nervy colleagues will put letters in this weekend,” one senior Tory MP told The Telegraph. “I don’t think you’ll get a stampede, but you’ll get a few from particularly nervy newbies.
“There will be frenetic phone calls between colleagues over the weekend, then people will wait to see what the PM does. How he now plays this is very important.”
Allies of Mr Johnson believe the total number of letters of no confidence submitted to the 1922 chairman Sir Graham Brady is around nine or 10, falling far short of the 54 needed to spark a leadership contest.
Stern advice to Prime Minister
A series of Tory MPs offered stern advice to Mr Johnson.
Mark Francois urged him to mend bridges with his backbenchers, saying: “No 10 now [has] to understand [it has] a major problem in its communications with the parliamentary party and it has to do something meaningful to overcome it.”
He insisted the by-election result “isn’t terminal”, but stressed it should serve as “a massive wake up call” to the Prime Minister.
David Davis, the former Cabinet minister, said he needed to make changes that were “visible, decisive and big enough to make a difference”, giving him a deadline of the end of January.
Mr Davis suggested Mr Johnson should undertake “sizeable reform” of his team to include people who can “stand up to him and look him in the eye”.
Some MPs called for “alpha” or “A team” characters to be drafted into Downing Street, arguing the Prime Minister needs better political operatives and enforcers.
While Mr Johnson is said to want to hire David Canzini, a partner at election guru Sir Lynton Crosby’s firm, it is understood he has not yet received a phone call.
The Prime Minister said on Friday that he took “personal responsibility” for what he described as a “very disappointing” result for his party in the by-election.
However, he sidestepped questions about whether he would resign if it was in the interests of the country or his party, insisting he was focused on fighting the pandemic.
“That is what the Government is engaged in doing now. That is what I am focused on. I think that is what people would want me to be focused on right now,” he said during a visit to a vaccination centre in Hillingdon.
One former Cabinet minister derided his response as a “s— performance”, but said that while Mr Johnson was “in deep s—” with the party at present, he has “spent most of his life in deep s—” and was well practised at fighting back.
“Either his love life has been hanging by a thread, or his political life when he was fired by Michael Howard, or his journalistic life when he lied to Conrad Black.
“He thrives on anarchy, so just because his premiership is hanging by a thread, doesn’t mean it won’t hang for quite a long time,” the MP said.
A year – at most – to sort himself out
Party grandees including Sir Charles Walker insisted it would be “completely self-indulgent” to spark a leadership contest, but added Mr Johnson had 12 months at most to make a difference.
“The Prime Minister has got weeks, months, a year to sort himself out,” he told Times Radio.
Tory MPs elected in 2019 in so-called Red Wall seats across the North and Midlands also cautioned on Friday night that Mr Johnson was in a “very dangerous situation”.
One said the major revolt over Covid-19 passports on Tuesday night, which was the biggest rebellion of Mr Johnson’s premiership, coupled with the dismal by-election result showed that both MPs and the public were trying to “send him a message”.
The MP continued: “We have to see some central changes, firstly in No 10, and secondly in the way the MPs are managed by the whips and the [liaison role of] PPSes [parliamentary private secretaries].
“I think he’s got one last chance to get that sorted by mid-February next year, otherwise you’re into local election season and after that point I don’t know if you can come back.”
Other narratives were adduced for the defeat in North Shropshire that lay beyond the immediate troubles engulfing Mr Johnson.
Other factors at play for poor Tory performance
John Redwood, a former Cabinet minister, said that high taxes and poor support for Britain’s farmers were to blame for voters turning their backs on the party.
He also complained that BBC Radio 4’s Today programme cancelled a plan for him to appear when it heard his views on the by-election defeat, implying that journalists there may be rejecting theories that do not match their pre-conceived notions.
Of the two dozen Tory MPs The Telegraph spoke to on Friday, some insisted the by-election result was to be expected at this mid-term juncture in the electoral cycle, arguing it is common for voters to exercise a protest vote then return to the fold at the next general election.
“It will be regarded as really serious [to start with], but [later] colleagues will get stuck into Christmas. I genuinely think this is standard Lib Dem by-election territory,” said one long-standing MP.
Another warned that the period of “crisis may not be over” for Mr Johnson, however, as he could yet face escalating rows over alleged rule-breaking parties in Downing Street, which could “run into Christmas”.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, stepped down on Friday night from leading an internal probe on the issue after he was found to have attended a quiz night in his office, billed as a “Christmas Party!” on the digital invitation, while household mixing was banned.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said he “played no part in the event” but had walked through the office and spoke briefly to staff.
In the past, the whips could breathe a sigh of relief once the Commons had risen for recess and MPs had headed home. Now communication via WhatsApp means plotting and conspiring can continue outside the tearoom and bars of Parliament.
One government source said that while MPs tended to cool off after leaving Westminster for a break, at Christmas time they were likely to be surrounded by relatives who would give them unvarnished views of the PM’s performance. The insider predicted the mood would be worse when the House returns in January.