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Dominic Raab has been challenged to explain how the Government will tackle the cost of living as he was rushed onto a morning broadcast round following the resignation of Oliver Dowden.
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked what ministers would do differently to earn back the trust of Tory voters after both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton voted to eject the Conservatives in Thursday’s by-election.
Mr Raab repeatedly insisted ministers would now focus on the cost of living and “levelling up” and get away from “distractions”, but did not offer any concrete suggestions on how the Government could be reformed.
He was brought into broadcast studios at the last minute on Friday morning after planned appearances by Mr Dowden were cancelled because he had resigned.
Mr Dowden, who was the chairman of the Conservative Party, posted his letter of resignation on Twitter following the results of the by-elections, which included a 24,000-vote majority being overturned in Tiverton and Honiton - the worst by-election defeat in history.
My letter of resignation to the Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/xd5MtM2o3n
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) June 24, 2022
Standing in for him, Mr Raab said the “central message” of the results was that the Conservatives “have got to be talking to the public, giving and delivering the public what we said we would do”.
“We know that the immediate thing in front of everyone is the cost of living challenge and then you have got the levelling up agenda, which is making sure that we are not solely reliant - or exclusively or predominantly reliant - just on the London south east economic motor,” he said.
Mr Raab also revealed he had spoken to Boris Johnson and told him that the Government must “cut out the distractions” and “be more disciplined and focused”.
“If we don’t deliver as a Government, if we don’t give the voters that positive agenda, of course you lose elections,” he told the BBC. “That goes without saying. That is written in.”
The comments could be interpreted as a reference to partygate, which has plagued Mr Johnson since December after a series of damaging stories about lockdown gatherings in No 10 and the result of two official investigations.
In recent weeks aides in No 10 have been told they should be operating on an election footing. David Canzini, Mr Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, has suggested a vote could be called before the end of the current parliament in December 2024.
But in an apparent debunking of that idea, Mr Raab said on Friday that ministers would spend the next “two years” dealing with the cost of living crisis.
“That is the critical plan. We have got the mechanisms, the means, the policies, the legislation to deliver it,” he said.
“We need to stop the distractions which blow us off course. We have got two years to do that and that is the game plan.”
On Friday morning Mr Johnson faced criticism from many of his backbenchers, including from Mr Raab’s predecessor as Justice Secretary, Sir Robert Buckland.
Sir Robert said Mr Johnson needs to “look in the mirror and do better” and told Sky News the Conservative Party is “about more than one man”.
The former Lord Chancellor admitted it was “frustrating” for those on the party's sidelines to see a “lack of focus” from the Government, but stopped short of calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, saying he did not believe “throwing over the captain now” would be the right response.
Mr Raab was asked if he and other ministers would listen to backbenchers who are demanding change from No 10.
He replied: “Of course we are going to listen but what I am telling you, the central message is [...] we have got to be talking to the public, giving and delivering the public what we said we would do.
“We have got a great plan for the reforms in schools, the NHS, criminal justice, the crime fighting plan.
“We have got to be relentlessly focused on it and the change […] is not allowing anything to get in the way of that.”