Two senior members of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party urged challengers to the British prime minister to temper their ambitions on Sunday and focus instead on helping the poorest through the biggest plunge in living standards in a generation.
Johnson is fighting for his political career after his government became engulfed in a three-month state of crisis, with an increasing number of lawmakers calling publicly for a change in leadership to rebuild trust with the electorate.
Johnson has apologised after he and staff held parties in Downing Street during strict coronavirus lockdowns, events that are now being investigated by the police.
Last week he further angered colleagues when he falsely accused the leader of the opposition of having failed to prosecute a notorious child sex abuser when he was in charge of public prosecutions. That, critics said, shows he is incapable of changing, or showing true remorse.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, told BBC TV that now was not the right time for a leadership challenge but he made clear that recent events had been hugely damaging to the country, with the public in despair.
Noting many people were struggling with soaring energy costs and food inflation, he said “I think we need to focus on that as the number one priority.” He added however that Johnson needed to show contrition and change so he “never ever gets to this point ever again”.
Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain’s business minister, said he did not think the party was near the point of deposing Johnson, adding “I don’t see what he’s seeing” when asked about a formerly loyal lawmaker’s assertion that it was inevitable Johnson would go.
Johnson, who in 2019 won the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, has repeatedly refused to resign over a series of revelations including the parties and the costly refurbishment of his apartment that have raised questions about his often chaotic style of leadership.
Five senior aids have quit in recent days, including one who condemned his comments about the now dead sex abuser Jimmy Savile. Johnson announced the hiring of new staff on Saturday.
The prime minister has since said he accepts that Labour leader Keir Starmer was not personally to blame for failing to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile, a television celebrity, when he was director of public prosecutions. But he refused to apologise.
Duncan Smith said the government needed to get a grip, impose some discipline and focus on helping the country through a cost of living crisis that has already led to tensions between the Bank of England, the government, unions and workers.
Andrew Bailey, the central bank governor, drew an icy response in recent days after he said workers should show restraint when asking for pay rises.
John Allan, chairman of Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket and the country’s largest private sector employer, said on Sunday he thought Bailey’s sentiment was wrong, and his 300,000 staff needed protecting from inflation. “So I think that’s the wrong direction for people to go in,” he said.
Allan added that economically he expected things to get worse for the country in the coming months as the full impact of a 54% jump in energy prices come through.