BORIS Johnson took a ferocious political beating from voters and senior Tory figures yesterday — but vowed to keep going.
Allies of the PM were battling to shore up his position after Boris took two by- election pastings and his party chairman Oliver Dowden quit the Cabinet.
Ex-leaders Michael Howard and William Hague urged the PM to quit — and rebel backbenchers began a new plot to get him out.
They are suspected of planning a new takeover of the back bench 1922 committee, which sets the rules for leadership contests, in order to force a new vote against the PM.
Tory whips and supporters of the Prime Minister are said to already be scrambling to stop this happening when elections to the committee take place next month.
Under the current rules, he is safe from a leadership challenge for a year.
The PM was forced to try to defend his position from Rwanda, where he is at a Commonwealth summit with wife Carrie.
A day of drama began when he lost the rock-solid Tory seat of Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems overturned a Conservative majority of 24,239 with a swing of 30 per cent.
At the same time, Labour claimed Wakefield on a 12.7 per cent swing, taking the Red Wall constituency by 4,925 votes.
Tory strategists suspect tactical voting was at play, with Labour and the Lib Dems agreeing an informal pact in the two seats.
Boris admitted the results were not brilliant. He said that with a cost of living crisis raging he expected to continue to be “beaten up” by voters, but refused to say he even thought about quitting.
Instead, the premier insisted “we will do more” to help.
After the by-election drubbing, Oliver Dowden became the first cabinet minister to openly question the PM’s future, warning “we cannot continue business as usual”.
He quit with a searing resignation letter at 5.35am — just moments before he was due on TV to try to spin the results.
Instead, he warned Tory backers were “distressed and disappointed by recent events”, adding “somebody must take responsibility”.
But behind the scenes, Chancellor Rishi Sunak rode out to the PM’s rescue, urging other ministers not to quit, in an attempt to snuff out a wider coup.
Mr Sunak said publicly that the whole Cabinet bore responsibility for the party’s plummeting popularity.
In Tiverton — where Tory Neil Parish had quit in disgrace after being caught watching porn in the Commons — the scale of the loss to the Lib Dems triggered Tory panic.
MPs in the party’s traditional heartlands fear a rout at the next general election.
Lord Howard, who led the party in opposition from 2003 to 2005, told the BBC: “The party and more importantly the country would be better off under new leadership.
“Members of the cabinet should very carefully consider their positions.”
And speaking to Times Radio, another former Tory party leader, Lord Hague, said members of the Cabinet should “steel themselves” to act.
He said he would resign if he was one of Mr Johnson’s ministers — warning the party was “potentially heading towards a disaster” amid a “tremendous loss of faith among party activists as well as voters around the country”.
At a press conference in Rwanda, the PM shrugged off suggestions there were knives out for him back home, and told reporters he refused to dwell on personality politics.
And he dangled slashing taxes for wavering voters and for businesses to “turbo charge” the economy, insisting: “We are the party that believes in cutting taxes.”
Mr Johnson said: “No doubt people will continue to beat me up and say this or that, or attack me.
“That’s fine. That’s quite right. That is the job of politicians, in the end, I have to take that.
“But I also have to get on with the job of delivering for the people of this country and that’s what I was elected to do.”
Resisting calls to cut his trip short to return to the UK to tackle the crisis, the sombre PM said he would listen to voters but vowed to “keep going” as PM.
No 10 insiders admitted that a reshuffle was on the cards within weeks to rejig the top team and try to stamp authority on Mr Johnson’s leadership.
The PM was forced to step back from his Commonwealth tour to hold crunch calls with Cabinet colleagues and aides yesterday.
Last night, insiders insisted there was no coordinated coup against the PM and Mr Dowden had quit as Tory co-chairman before he was pushed.
One minister said: “He hated the job and felt demoted.
“He’s a square peg in a round hole. This was his way of getting out with his integrity intact.”
Meanwhile, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi stressed “we need to listen” to the thousands of Tories who did not vote to “give them reasons to come back at the next election”.
Culture chief Nadine Dorries, the PM’s ultra-loyal attack dog, said: “History tells us how useless by-election results are as an indication of absolutely anything at all.”
Matt Hancock told Times Radio the party must “pull together” for a general election in which “the only alternative will be a combination of Nicola Sturgeon and Keir Starmer”.
But others were quick to slam the PM — including disgraced ex-Tiverton MP Neil Parish.
He told Sky: “Had the party and the national situation and the leader of our party been in a better place, we would not have lost the 24,000 majority.”
Serial rebel MP Andrew Bridgen revealed he will be standing for election to the 1922 committee next month in a bid to rip up the rules protecting the PM from a new confidence vote for 12 months.
He told GB News: “I’m going to put my hat in the ring on a manifesto of rule change and clearly if a majority of the committee are elected on that mindset then the rules can be changed.”