Senior Conservatives accused Boris Johnson of increasingly “delusional” behaviour on Saturday night after he said he was already planning for his third term as prime minister, just two days after the Tories suffered a catastrophic double byelection defeat at the hands of the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
As talk of replacing Johnson intensified, several senior MPs questioned why the prime minister had been allowed to give interviews in which he said he would refuse to change his ways, and then, in even more defiant terms, told journalists at the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda that he was planning to be in Downing Street until well into the 2030s.
In a series of interventions that angered MPs, the prime minister suggested that he would not change his behaviour in office, regarded issues around his leadership as settled and saw his premiership extending into the distant future.
Asked by reporters in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, about whether he would like to serve a full second term as prime minister, Johnson said: “At the moment I am thinking actively about the third term and you know, what could happen then,” adding, “But I will review that when I get to it.”
He continued: “We’ve embarked on a massive project to change the government, of the constitution of the country, the way we run our legal system, the way we manage our borders, our economy. All sorts of things we’re doing differently. We also, at the same time, are embarked on a colossal project to unite and level up … It’s going to take time. And I want to keep driving it forward.”
His comments had echoes of Margaret Thatcher, who alarmed some of her Tory critics and arguably hastened her downfall as prime minister when she said she intended to “go on and on” after the 1987 general election.
Earlier, Johnson provoked derision and frustration among Tory MPs by suggesting he would not change his personality, despite a series of scandals and rows that have left them considering ways in which to remove him as leader. He said voters were tired of hearing about what he is “alleged to have done wrong”.
“If you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think that our listeners would know that is not going to happen,” Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“What you can do, and what the government should do, and what I want to do, is to get on with changing and reforming and improving our systems and our economy.”
He later told Sky News that people wanted to hear less about the “things I stuffed up”. He said he believed questions over this leadership had been settled.
One former supporter of the prime minister, an ex-cabinet minister, described Johnson’s remarks as “completely delusional”, while a senior MP from a “red wall” seat said he was “showing increasing signs of a bunker mentality, and that never ends well.”
A party grandee who backed him to be leader in 2019 said that if Johnson “did not heed the lessons of Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield and take the appropriate action, then his parliamentary colleagues will have to do it for him”.
Another former minister said there could be moves to oust Johnson at the Tory party conference in the autumn. Referring to Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit deal, the ex-minister said: “Remember in 2018 he turned the conference into the ‘chuck Chequers’ conference. This could be the chuck Boris conference.”
Writing in the Observer, Labour leader Keir Starmer says the byelection result in Wakefield shows his party is ready for a general election and for power, having undergone profound change and reform since he took over from Jeremy Corbyn.
As the Tories try to sow the seeds of division he says he has established Labour “firmly on the centre ground of British politics”. He adds: “For months Boris Johnson has been privately claiming he will hold an early election. My message to him is simple: bring it on.”
Tory rebels are exploring the option of holding an emergency vote of activists this summer over Johnson’s leadership. The tactic was deployed as the party attempted to oust Theresa May. While any vote would not be binding, it would be a sign that the party’s grassroots had lost faith in the prime minister.
Conservative MPs are also preparing for elections to the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, which can change the rules on leadership elections to allow another vote of confidence in Johnson within a year.
Earlier this month, 148 Conservative MPs expressed no confidence in him, 32 short of the number needed to force his resignation. Under current rules another vote cannot be held for a year if a leader survives a vote of confidence.
Johnson will try yet again to set aside domestic political woes with a call for new sanctions against Russia and increased defence spending by international partners, as he heads to the G7 and Nato summits for five days of intense diplomatic discussions. He is scheduled to fly to Germany on Sunday morning from Rwanda.
But Tory MPs believe he is even more vulnerable to plotting by members of his own party when out of the country.
The byelection results, followed by the dramatic resignation in the early hours of Friday of party chairman Oliver Dowden, sent shockwaves through the party hierarchy and raised serious question about morale at all levels.
Johnson is due to hold talks with a string of fellow leaders, US president Joe Biden among them, first at the annual gathering of G7 industrialised nations, being held this year in southern Germany, before flying to Madrid in Spain for a Nato summit which will be dominated by the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its many consequences will be particularly at the forefront of the Madrid gathering, with Johnson set to reiterate his support for Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.
While a bilateral meeting with Biden has yet to be formally pinned down, at the G7 Johnson is due to hold talks with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa.
At Nato, where he arrives on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson’s pre-arranged bilateral talks include Anthony Albanese, the new Australian prime minister, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, Pedro S?nchez, the Spanish PM, and Mark Rutte his Dutch counterpart. Other engagements include a leaders’ dinner hosted by the Spanish king, Felipe VI.