A defiant Boris Johnson has turned on Tory opponents demanding he resign, telling them their criticism “doesn’t matter” and they have no policy ideas.
Speaking 24 hours after two disastrous by-election defeats, the prime minister refused to accept he “personally contributed” to them through his lawbreaking behaviour in the Partygate scandal.
Mr Johnson also made clear he was not capable of some “sort of psychological transformation” to change his character, saying: “I think your listeners will know that’s not going to happen.”
Instead, he dismissed senior Conservative figures calling for him to go – including former leaders Michael Howard and William Hague – arguing they are not putting forward any alternative.
The prime minister claimed the “only argument of substance” made by any of his critics was “for us to go back into the EU single market”.
And he told BBC Radio 4: “As a leader you have to try to distinguish between criticism that really matters and the criticism that doesn’t matter.”
Mr Johnson was interviewed as Tory rebels to seize control of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers in elections next month, to force a rule change to allow another no-confidence vote.
That could be held in the autumn if the looming contempt inquiry into whether he lied to parliament over the No 10 parties is damning.
But the prime minister sought to put a positive spin on only 59 per cent of his MPs backing him in this month’s confidence vote, claiming: “I have a renewed mandate from my colleagues and I’m going to continue to deliver.”
And he insisted the public wanted to hear about his policies – not his personality – saying: “I want to get on with changing and reforming our systems and economy.
“If we’re going to have an argument about politics, let’s have an argument about how the railways run, that is a subject of engrossing fascination for people up and down the country because of the rail strikes.”
Mr Johnson also said the test of success for the controversial policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was to cut the numbers attempting the dangerous Channel crossings.
But, asked when the government would know it was “breaking the business model” of the people traffickers, as he put it, the prime minister said: “I’m not going to give you a figure.”