Boris Johnson brushed aside calls to change from Conservative MPs after a record rebellion against his coronavirus restrictions left the opposition parties questioning his authority to lead the country through the pandemic.
The Prime Minister said he “would respectfully suggest” the public are focused on jobs and the booster vaccines roll-out in response to the Omicron variant after 100 Conservatives opposed the mandatory use of Covid health certificates during a Commons vote.
After the biggest Conservative rebellion since he entered No 10, backbenchers called for Mr Johnson to change his approach.
One senior Tory said a leadership challenge had to be “on the cards” if the Prime Minister did not alter the way he dealt with his own MPs.
Mr Johnson was pressed on how he would change in response to Tory anger, during a Downing Street press conference after the UK recorded the highest daily total of lab-confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.
“I’m certainly not going to change the policies that have led to the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, the fastest booster campaign in Europe now and delivered 500,000 more people in jobs now than there were before the pandemic began,” he responded.
“Those are the things I would respectfully suggest the public are also keen to focus on.”
The Government’s Plan B to limit the spread of coronavirus was approved thanks to Labour’s support on Tuesday, but dozens of Tory backbenchers chose to rebel.
They are particularly enraged by the introduction on Wednesday of the mandatory use of Covid health passes displaying either vaccination status or a recent negative test to enter large venues.
During a noisy session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson acknowledged there are “legitimate anxieties” about the impact on civil liberties but insisted his approach is “balanced and proportionate and right”.
However, Sir Keir Starmer said the vote had exposed the weakness of a premier who has lost the trust of the public and of his own MPs following reports of parties last Christmas in No 10 in breach of Covid regulations.
“We cannot go on with a Prime Minister who is too weak to lead, so will the Prime Minister take time this Christmas to look in the mirror and ask himself if he has the trust and authority to lead this country?” he demanded.
Mr Johnson retorted: “I respect and understand the legitimate anxieties colleagues have about restrictions on the liberty of the people, but I believe the approach that we are taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country.”
Despite the scale of the rebellion, Tory MPs appeared determined to show their support on Wednesday as they loudly cheered him on during his exchanges with the Labour leader.
But they could not disguise the concerns within the party ranks, with one senior Conservative openly acknowledging the PM could face a leadership challenge unless the situation improves.
Mr Johnson’s difficulties may be compounded by the by-election in North Shropshire on Thursday where the Liberal Democrats are favourites to overturn a Tory majority of almost 23,000 in what would be another body blow to his authority.
Asked if Mr Johnson would quit if North Shropshire was lost, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said: “We are fighting for every vote.”
The Prime Minister sought to reassure Conservative MPs angered by the decision to press on with Covid passes in England, pledging they will be given a say on any further restrictions that are required.
“If further measures are needed, if further regulation is needed, of course this House will have a further say,” he said.
Earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps promised Parliament will be recalled if additional controls are required during the Christmas recess, although he said he does not believe they will be necessary.
“We have got in place now the measures that we believe will see us through to the new year,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Despite the rebellion, the order requiring Covid passes for entry to nightclubs and other venues was passed with a majority of 243, with Labour backing the move.
Sir Keir said his party had given the leadership the Prime Minister could not.
He said the country has the “worst possible Prime Minister at the worst possible time”, and he warned Mr Johnson will not be able to rebuild public trust until he explains what went on in No 10 last year.
“Can the Prime Minister not see that he has no hope of regaining the moral authority to deliver that difficult message if he cannot be straight with the British public about the rule-breaking in Downing Street last Christmas?” he said.
Mr Johnson said he has repeatedly answered the question and that the public want the Government to “focus on the matter in hand”, including the vaccine rollout.
Earlier, former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Tories sceptical about restrictions, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that Mr Johnson needed to “act differently”.
“Instead of the Prime Minister making a late-night address on Sunday and scaring many people witless, a better thing to do would have been to come to the House of Commons on Monday to set out in detail the advice that he’s received, the things that he thinks needs to happen as a result, and allow Members of Parliament to ask questions and then for him to answer them,” he said.
“So what I’m calling for is for him to change how he operates.”
His warning came after senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said a leadership challenge has “got to be on the cards” if Mr Johnson did not alter the way he dealt with his own MPs.
Many Tory MPs are still angry over the allegations of parties in Downing Street and elsewhere during lockdown restrictions, as well as nursing longer held resentments about the Government’s handling of the standards row involving former minister Owen Paterson which led to Thursday’s by-election.
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