The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed suggestions he may be forced to quit if he loses two crunch by-elections on Thursday as “crazy”.
Voters are going to the polls in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton in by-elections seen as a key test of the Prime Minister’s leadership two weeks after 148 Conservative MPs tried to oust him in a confidence vote.
Mr Johnson survived the challenge but some Tories have warned that defeats in Wakefield – in the so-called Red Wall of seats the party took from Labour in 2019, and in Tiverton and Honiton – seen as a classic true-blue southern seat, could reignite questions over the leadership.
Senior backbencher Huw Merriman has warned the Prime Minister that the vote on his leadership was “like a tornado that blew in, then blew out again”.
Discussing the prospect of twin by-election defeats, Mr Merriman went on: “It’s possible that the tornado blows in again when you don’t expect it”.
But asked whether he would quit if he loses, Mr Johnson told reporters travelling with him to a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda: “Come on, it was only a year ago that we won the Hartlepool by-election, which everybody thought was – you know, we hadn’t won Hartlepool for – I can’t remember when the Tory party last won Hartlepool – a long time.
“I don’t think it ever had… governing parties generally do not win by-elections particularly not in mid term.
“You know, I’m very hopeful, but you know, there you go.
“That’s just the reality.”
Asked if he would remain Prime Minister after two defeats, he replied: “Are you crazy?”
Both by-elections were triggered after Tory MPs were forced to resign in disgrace.
In Wakefield, a former industrial area in West Yorkshire, ex-Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan stood down after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy and jailed for 18 months.
Wakefield was one of the so-called Red Wall seats won by the Tories in the 2019 general election after being a Labour stronghold since the 1930s, but Labour is now hoping to take it back.
In Devon’s Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, the Tory MP since 2010, resigned after admitting he had watched pornography on his phone in the House of Commons.
The Liberal Democrats are the main challenger in this rural south-western constituency, where they are hoping to recreate by-election wins in North Shropshire in December and Chesham and Amersham a year ago.
Victory for the Lib Dems would require overturning a Conservative majority of 24,239, but party leader Sir Ed Davey was confident they were “neck and neck” with the Tories on the eve of the vote.
Mr Johnson also refused to address questions about whether Tory MPs who want to change the rules of the influential backbench 1922 Committee to allow another leadership challenge in six months, rather than a year, were acting unfairly.
He said: “I’m focused entirely on delivering on the agenda of this Government. My golden rule is the less you talk about Westminster issues, the more you talk about the things you want to talk to the country about.”