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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Senior Tories have put Boris Johnson on notice that his leadership is on the line after the party’s crushing defeat in the North Shropshire by-election.
The Prime Minister suffered another body blow to his authority as the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive Conservative majority to take the seat by almost 6,000 votes.
The result sent shock waves through Westminster after weeks of damaging headlines about Tory “sleaze” and reports of partying in No 10 in breach of Covid restrictions last year.
Mr Johnson said he took “personal responsibility” for what he described as a “very disappointing” result” for the party.
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 in 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.
With the unexpectedly heavy defeat prompting renewed talk of a possible leadership challenge, senior Conservatives appealed for “calm” while warning that Mr Johnson had only a limited time to turn things around.
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 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.”
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 told Sky News.
“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.”
The 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 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.”
The result came at the end of a wretched week for the Prime Minister which saw 100 Tory MPs defy the whips and vote against the Government’s latest Covid restrictions.
Mr Johnson acknowledged he needed to “fix” issues like the reported No 10 parties and the controversy around the funding of the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, which have fuelled anger inside Parliament and beyond.
However he insisted that a “constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians” had overshadowed the Government’s successes like the rapid rollout of the Covid booster jab campaign.
“I’ve got to put my hands up and say ‘Have I failed to get that message across in the last few weeks? Has it been obscured by all this other stuff?’ Yes, I’m afraid it has,” he said.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson, with many Tory MPs still angry at the Government’s botched attempt to get him off the hook after he broke the rules on paid lobbying by MPs.
The former minister held the seat with a majority of almost 23,000 at the 2019 general election but the contest was dominated by reports of No 10 parties last Christmas in breach of lockdown rules.
The Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan took the seat with 17,957 votes, pushing Tory Neil Shastri-Hurst into second place on 12,032, with a 34% swing to the Lib Dems – the fourth largest in a by-election in the last 30 years.
Coming after the party’s’ victory earlier in the year in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, where they overturned another big Tory majority, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said it was a “watershed moment” in British politics.
“We’ve now this year beaten the Conservatives in two of their safest seats,” he said.
“Liberal Democrats have proven the Conservatives can be beaten anywhere. And I think people are so fed up with Boris Johnson, so fed up with his incompetence and his behaviour, I think they’ll be really happy about that.”
For Labour, shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, said it was a “terrible result” for the Conservatives.
He told BBC Breakfast: “Clearly, people have wanted to send a message to the Government they’re fed up with the incompetence, the sleaze, the kind of revelations we’ve seen over the last few weeks.”