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The departure of Lord Frost from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet has been described as a “watershed moment” for the PM as his backbenchers spoke openly about needing a new direction for his party and Government.
Lord Frost’s resignation could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr Johnson, who has faced potentially the most damaging week in his premiership.
Mr Johnson’s long-term ally had originally agreed to stay on until January, with The Sunday Times reporting that Mr Johnson had told his top EU negotiator that the Government could not cope with a high-profile departure when he first handed his resignation in earlier this month.
But in an exchange of letters on Saturday night, Lord Frost said that because the news had been made public, he would now stand down with immediate effect.
Brexiteer Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told Times Radio that “quite honestly it’s a devastating blow for the Government and for the Prime Minister”.
He added: “He’s (Lord Frost) complained that he’s not happy about the direction of policy of the Government and clearly that’s shared by a number of backbenchers, hence the revolt we had this week, and it also it echoes what was heard on the doorsteps of many former Conservative voters in North Shropshire this week as well.”
He said: “The answer, for Boris Johnson, is to change or go.
“We are going to have to change policy and get back to Conservative policies, (for) which we were voted in, with a huge majority on the mandate.
“And the Prime Minister needs to think very carefully whether he can change, whether he wants to change, and I think quite honestly Conservative MPs will be considering the same matters as well over this Christmas holiday.”
Mr Bridgen said: “I think the resignation of Lord Frost, for many, will be a watershed moment quite honestly.”
And he added: “It feels to me as if the old Boris Johnson that we knew and loved some years ago has been hijacked.”
He warned: “We are notoriously ruthless in the Conservative Party. If our leader is seen as a liability, not a political asset, then they generally have to go because the only alternative really to a Conservative government is a Labour government.”
Lord Frost himself warned in his letter to the PM that he had “concerns about the current direction of travel” of the Government.
And that he was worried about the prospect of “coercive measures” to control coronavirus.
Meanwhile, 2019 intake Tory MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that their party must change.
They wrote: “What’s gone wrong is that we find ourselves mired in allegations of sleaze and rule-breaking, while the country finds itself in a swamp of rules and regulations that are harming the social and economic fabric of our nation. Our supporters are embarrassed by the former, fatigued by the latter, and angered by both.”
🗽Outstanding by @danny__kruger and Miriam Cates MP on our political renewal:
"We need to remember what makes us Conservatives, and then make an honest offer to the public: This is what we believe, and if you support us, this is what you’ll get."https://t.co/BNcARNYBQd
— Steve Baker MP FRSA (@SteveBakerHW) December 18, 2021
And they said: “We need a new way forward as a party.”
On Friday, veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale said Mr Johnson needed to show he was capable of being a good prime minister if he was to continue for much longer.
“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,” he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.
“Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.
“The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the Prime Minister fails, the Prime Minister goes.”
While Sir Charles Walker, the former 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 told Times Radio.
“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.”
Mr Johnson will face a vote of no confidence if more than 15% of his MPs – which comes to 54 of the parliamentarians – submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
Asked on Friday if he would resign if it was in the interest of the Conservative Party, Mr Johnson said: “What we’re focusing on is getting the job done. What we’re focusing on is trying to make sure that we not only have the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest booster rollout, as we’ve already done, but that we’re able – because of the Get Boosted Now campaign – to avert some of the more damaging consequences of Omicron.
“That is what the Government is engaged in doing now. That is what I am focused on. And, do you know what, I think that is what people would want me to be focused on right now.”
Fury on the backbenches began in October when the Government launched an ill-fated bid to save from suspension former Tory MP Owen Paterson, after he was found to have breached lobbying rules.
MPs were whipped to support Mr Paterson before the Government U-turned within 24 hours.
There was already disgruntlement on the backbenches over broken manifesto promises on the pensions triple lock, rail upgrades in the North, and a rise in national insurance to pay for social care reforms.
This was deepened by Mr Johnson later conceding homes may need to be sold to fund social care costs.
The Government was then embroiled in a number of sleaze scandals, including allegations parties were held across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions last year.
While his own standards adviser was reported to be angered after an Electoral Commission investigation into the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat raised concerns the Prime Minister may have misled Lord Geidt.
And in the last week, Mr Johnson has suffered his largest rebellion yet as nearly 100 of his MPs voted against the implementation of Covid passes.
The Tories were also subjected to a humiliating defeat in the North Shropshire by-election, where Mr Paterson had previously enjoyed a nearly 23,000 majority.
And Mr Johnson is likely to face more opposition if he needs to bring in stricter coronavirus measures in the face of rising cases of the Omicron variant.