Cabinet members should ‘very carefully consider’ future, says senior figure after by-election losses
The Tory peer – who has remained quiet on the question of the leadership – also suggested that cabinet ministers should consider moving against the PM if he clings on at No 10.
“The party and more importantly the country would be better off under new leadership,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on Friday.
In a call for action, the senior figure added: “Members of the cabinet should very carefully consider their positions.”
Although Mr Johnson has a 12-month grace-period after winning a recent confidence vote, Mr Howard said the 1922 committee of backbenchers could now change their rules to allow a fresh challenge.
“It may be necessary for the executive of the 1922 committee to meet and to decide to change the rules so another leadership could take place,” he said.
It follows Tory chair Oliver Dowden stinging resignation in the wake of the party’s crushing losses in Devon and west Yorkshire – saying he shared the feelings of supporters “distressed” by recent events.
In his letter to the PM Mr Dowden said: “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.”
Mr Johnson was said to be surprised by Mr Dowden’s resignation and spoke to chancellor Rishi Sunak and chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris by phone soon afterwards, according to a Tory source.
Asked if he feared Mr Dowden was acting as an outrider for a possible leadership challenge from someone like Mr Sunak, the source said: “What do I know, but I’d be astonished if it was the chancellor.”
Mr Sunak later said he was “sad” over the resignation of Mr Dowden but added he was “determined to continue working to tackle the cost of living”.
Home secretary Priti Patel predicted that Mr Dowden would be the only minister to resign today, and said the PM told her he would be “cracking on with task” after the by-election defeats.
But backbench Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who has repeatedly called for Mr Johnson to go, said further resignations were possible and claimed the party was “spoilt for choice” when it came to potential replacements.
Gavin Barwell, former No 10 chief of staff under Theresa May, urged MPs “to wake up before it is too late”, adding: “Finally someone in the cabinet says ‘Enough is enough’,” he said on Mr Dowden’s exit.
Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 committee, said there is “no doubt” it would be “difficult to hold” his seat if there were a by-election in his Cotswolds constituency now.
Sir Geoffrey, who voted against Mr Johnson at the recent confidence vote, would not be drawn on whether the 1922 committee could change their rules to allow another confidence vote within 12 months.
But he said the Conservatives will have “some difficult decisions to make” and could consider again “whether we should actually take steps to have a new prime minister.”
Former minister Sir Robert Buckland said he has told Mr Johnson he needs to “look in the mirror and do better”, but told Sky News the Conservative Party is “about more than one man”. He added: ““I don’t think throwing over the captain now would be the right response.”
James Johnson, former pollster at No 10, said there was “only one person to blame” for the Wakefield result – which saw Keir Starmer’s party win by 5,000 votes – pointing to Mr Johnson as the main reason swing voters cited for opting for Labour.
The Lib Dems swept to victory in Devon, where Richard Foord overcame a Tory majority of 24,239 votes and won by more than 6,000 – the largest ever majority overturned at a by-election.
Former No 10 adviser Tim Montgomerie said the “massive” result in Tiverton showed Mr Johnson had to go. “This is a crisis for the Conservative party,” he told Sky News.