LONDON (AP) — Defiant British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in a stubborn standoff with his frustrated Conservative party on Saturday after two landslide special election defeats renewed calls for a major change in government direction.
Johnson called the losses predictable medium-term blues and said people who expected “some kind of psychological transformation” from him should know “that’s not going to happen”.
The prime minister told the BBC he thought ‘voters are really sick of hearing about me and the things I’ve done wrong. What they want to hear is what we do for them.
“What I want to do is keep changing, reforming and improving our systems and our economy,” he said.
Despite the bullish tone, it is a perilous time for Johnson, who is due to be out of the UK until Thursday at a Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda, a gathering of Group of Seven leaders in Germany. and a NATO summit in Spain.
Lingering concerns about Johnson’s ethics and judgment have been brought to a boil by the Conservatives’ defeats in two special elections this week. The party lost the rural South West England seat of Tiverton and Honiton to the centrist Liberal Democrats and were defeated by the centre-left Labor in the post-industrial northern town of Wakefield .
The results alarmed many in the party, who fear Johnson’s electoral magic – his rare ability to appeal to both wealthy traditional Tories and former working-class Labor supporters – has been erased by ethics scandals and a cost of living crisis.
Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned after the election results on Friday, saying the party “cannot carry on business as usual”, and two former Tory leaders said it was time for Johnson to leave.
Michael Howard, who led the Tories between 2003 and 2005, said ‘the party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership’. William Hague, who was Conservative leader from 1997 to 2001, said the results showed the party was “potentially heading for disaster” unless it changed leaders.
“Cabinet members must arm themselves to do this,” he said.
Johnson led the Tories to a big election victory in December 2019 on a promise to “get Brexit done” after years of resentment over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
His government has been beset by rocky post-Brexit relations with the EU, and now by the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine cutting energy and staple food supplies at a time when consumer demand is soaring while the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
Johnson’s popularity has also been eroded by months of ethics allegations, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings while millions of others were banned from meeting friends and family during the coronavirus closures.
Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister convicted of breaking the law while in office. An official’s report into the ‘partygate’ scandal said Johnson must take responsibility for ‘failures of leadership and judgment’.
Johnson survived a vote of no confidence by his own party this month, but was weakened after 41% of Tory lawmakers voted to impeach him. Under party rules, Johnson cannot face another such vote for a year.
That could change. The votes of no confidence are overseen by a powerful party committee, and Johnson’s opponents say they will push to change the rules. Conservatives have a habit of ousting leaders they consider passive. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, also won a no-confidence vote in December 2018 – but internal party pressure forced her to resign six months later.