Furious Tories out Boris ‘on warning’ as leader ‘drinking in last chance saloon’

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MPs called for a clear out of No 10 and return to the “old Boris” who had his finger on the nation’s pulse. They called for a Willie Whitelaw-style fixer to take charge of operations and stop careless errors being made in Downing Street. Tory chairman Oliver Dowden insisted the party had heard the message voters in the North Shropshire by-election had sent.

He said: “Voters in North Shropshire were fed up and they gave us a kicking. I think they wanted to send us a message and I want to say as chairman of the Conservative Party we’ve heard that loud and clear. We need to get on with delivering the job and that’s precisely what we’re doing.”

Mr Dowden insisted Mr Johnson was still a force to be reckoned with at the ballot box. “I think the Prime Minister is an electoral asset for the Conservative Party, and I’ll tell you why,” he said.

“Just take the three really big calls we’ve faced. Get Brexit done: he’s delivered on it. We’ve delivered the fastest booster programme in the world twice over and we’ve seen the economy through this terrible period, with unemployment lower than when we entered. So I think actually on the big calls the Prime Minister has the vision and the direction to get us through this difficult period.”

The by-election defeat comes just days after Mr Johnson suffered a bruising parliamentary rebellion over tougher covid rules. Weeks of allegations of sleaze and lockdown rule-breaking have also fuelled anger among Conservative backbenchers.

Baroness Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said the by-election result was a “self-inflicted wound”. She said MPs “aren’t there yet” when it comes to forcing a leadership challenge but they would turn unless improvements are made.

“The Prime Minister is drinking in the last chance saloon. They are looking for him to come back after Christmas with a programme for government, to sharpen up the operation at No 10, to stop having all of these own goals and burning political capital, not just on this, also on Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle, also on MPs’ second jobs, also the party is looking for a bit of bloody grip. And if they see that, they might hold off. But I think the Prime Minister has been put on warning by his MPs.”

Conservatives said MPs were “frustrated and annoyed” but the mood was not yet “mutinous”. One told the Express Mr Johnson was still very popular in their area and the party must support him to get back on the front foot.

The MP said a leadership challenge now would look “vain and out of touch” but they warned if the trend continues over the next six months questions will be asked. Others warned the party had shifted away too far from Conservative values, such as keeping taxes low.

A senior Tory said the Prime Minister must start listening to the party and needed a trusted fixer by his side in the way Willie Whitelaw supported Margaret Thatcher. But they said there was “no obvious” candidate to replace Mr Johnson, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss little known by the electorate and Chancellor Rishi Sunak dented by his decision to increase taxes to cover social care costs.

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Veteran Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said the defeat should be seen as a “referendum” on Mr Johnson’s premiership. He said the party lost “because the electorate wanted to send a very clear message to Downing Street that they were dissatisfied with the management of this Government”.

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

Sir Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said a leadership contest would be “completely self-indulgent” 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 said. “If we go on making unforced errors over the next three to six months or nine months, it will become a lot more serious. It’s serious now but it’s not at a critical level yet.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the 1922 Committee said it was not the time for a “big blame game” but that Mr Johnson needed to stop the “self-inflicted own goals”.

“I want him to succeed, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But in doing that, as one of his seasoned backbenchers, I am asking him to think carefully how he governs the country and avoid these self-inflicted measures.”

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