Boris Johnson struck a defiant note after his Conservative party suffered two major by-elections defeats this week, saying he would not undergo a “psychological transformation”.
The UK prime minister, speaking from a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda, told the BBC Radio 4 Today program on Saturday morning that he would instead concentrate on issues such as the cost of living and the war in Ukraine.
Oliver Dowden, the former Tory party chair, resigned within minutes of the results of Wakefield in West Yorkshire and Tiverton in Devon on Friday, publishing a letter that implicitly criticized Johnson’s leadership.
Asked if he would change in the wake of that resignation, Johnson said: “If you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think our listeners would know that is not going to happen.”
He added that every government is “buffeted” by disappointing by-election results in the middle of a parliament.
The loss of Tiverton to the Liberal Democrats – after holding a majority of 24,239 – has left many Tory MPs believing they are at risk of losing their seats.
Wakefield’s shift to Labor also puts the “Red Wall” of former Labor seats Johnson seized in the 2019 election under threat.
The prime minister suggested the government could carry out a further fuel duty cut if petrol prices remain high, and said that the contentious policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda would eventually work.
The Johnson premiership has been buffeted by “partygate”, when workplace gatherings that broke Covid lockdown rules led to more than 100 fines, and by the cost of living crisis. On Friday senior figures including Michael Howard, a former Tory party leader, called for him to quit.
Johnson survived a vote of confidence earlier this month, even though 148 MPs voted to remove him. Downing Street is braced for rebel Tory MPs to make a concerted effort to change Conservative party rules which prevent a second challenge within 12 months.
The executive of the 1922 backbench committee, which sets the rules, will shortly hold elections for key posts. Some rebels, including backbencher Andrew Bridgen, are planning to stand in a bid to change the 12-month rule, but the current leadership is not keen.
“Changing the rules at half time, because you are 1-0 down can’t be fair,” said one MP on the committee.