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Boris Johnson has admitted the Tories endured a “tough night” after suffering a string of losses in council elections but insisted he would not be deflected from his economic agenda.
The Prime Minister said that he took full responsibility for the results as Labour strengthened its grip on London and the Liberal Democrats also made gains at the Conservatives’ expense.
However, he faced a growing backlash from local Tories who blamed continuing public anger over lockdown parties in Downing Street for the losses.
One Conservative MP publicly warned it may require a change of leadership if the Government was to rebuild the trust of voters.
Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, hailed a “turning point” for Labour as they took the totemic Tory authority in Wandsworth, won Westminster for the first time since its creation in 1964 and clinched victory in Barnet.
Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to a school in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, Mr Johnson said it had been a “mixed set of results” for the Tories.
“It is mid-term,” he said.
“We had a tough night in some parts of the country but on the other hand in other parts of the country you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”
He said the “message from voters” was that they wanted the Government to focus on getting the country through the economic aftermath of Covid.
“This Government is absolutely determined to keep going with every ounce of compassion and ingenuity that we have, get people through the economic aftershocks,” he said.
However David Simmonds, the Tory MP for neighbouring Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, said the issue of lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street had kept coming up on the doorstep.
“He (Mr Johnson) needs to find a way to restore confidence in the Government and I think there’s a number of ways he might do that,” he told the PA news agency.
“A change of leader would be one of them. Alternatively he needs to demonstrate what the alternative plan would be.”
Mr Johnson could face a leadership challenge if 53 Tory MPs – 15% of the parliamentary party – write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, calling for vote of no confidence.
Some MPs who previously called for him to step down have since backed off amid the crisis in Ukraine, but the results may prompt a new round of soul-searching within the party.
Among grassroots Tories there was anger and frustration that local councillors were paying the price for what they said were the failures of the national leadership.
John Mallinson, leader of Carlisle City Council, hit out after Labour took control of the new Cumberland authority which will replace it.
He told the BBC: “I think it is not just partygate, there is the integrity issue.
“Basically I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the Prime Minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”
Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth Tories, said: “Let’s not be coy about it, of course national issues were part of the dilemma people were facing.”
Allies of the Prime Minister insisted that despite Labour gains in the capital, they had still not made sufficient progress elsewhere to translate into victory at a general election.
Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden acknowledged the party had suffered some “difficult results” but said it was not time for a change at the top.
“Labour are certainly not on the path to power and I believe that Boris Johnson does have the leadership skills, in particular the energy and the dynamism that we need during this difficult period of time,” he told Sky News.
That did not deter a jubilant Sir Keir from proclaiming clear evidence of a Labour revival following its crushing defeat in the 2019 general election.
“This is a big turning point for us,” he told cheering supporters in Barnet. “We’ve sent a message to the Prime Minister: Britain deserves better.”
The Liberal Democrats were also in buoyant mood after taking dozens of seats and winning control of Hull from Labour.
Following their recent by-election successes party leader Sir Ed Davey said they stood poised to make further gains at the general election.
“What began as a tremor in Chesham and Amersham, became an earthquake in North Shropshire, and is now an almighty shockwave that will bring this Conservative Government tumbling down,” he said.
After full results were declared from 87 councils, the Tories had lost control of nine authorities and suffered a net loss of 152 councillors. Labour had a net gain of five councils and 94 seats, the Lib Dems had gained a council and 54 councillors, and the Greens had put on 27 councillors.
The loss of Wandsworth will be a significant blow to the Conservatives because of its symbolic status in London.
It turned blue in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister and was reputedly her favourite council, noted for its low taxes.
Labour’s success in Barnet, which has a large Jewish population, will be seen as a sign the party has turned the corner on the anti-Semitism rows which dogged Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.