Boris Johnson has said voters are fed up of hearing about things he had “stuffed up” as he played down a bruising double by-election defeat as a “safety valve”.
The prime minister, who has faced a barrage of criticism over lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street and over his own conduct, argued people had not been told enough about the issues “that really matter to them”.
His comments follow the resignation of cabinet minister Oliver Dowden, after the Tories lost their former stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats and the red wall seat of Wakefield to Labour.
Speaking to Sky News at a Commonwealth leaders summit in Rwanda, Mr Johnson said: “For a long time people were hearing not enough about the things that really matter to them.
“People were absolutely fed up hearing about things I stuffed up, this endless churn of stuff, when they wanted to hear what is this guy doing.”
He added: “When you’re the leader of a country, in good times and in bad, you have to think about the criticisms that you get.
“And you have to recognise that inevitably when you’re the head of a government that’s taking the country through a big inflationary price caused by the increasing cost of energy, people are frustrated.
“People are filling up their cars, and cursing as they do so.
“I understand that, we have to help them – and I understand people’s frustration.
“So what I’m saying is politics is about allowing people to have the democratic safety valve of letting off at governments, such as in by-elections.
“But then the job of a leader is to say, well, what is the criticism that really matters here?
“And I think back to what I was saying, I think it’s, for a long time people were hearing not enough about the things that really matter.”
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Amid reports of renewed backbench manoeuvring to oust him, Mr Johnson said: “Golden rule – rule number one of politics – focus on what we are doing, what we have been elected to do to help people take the country forward.
“Focus on what matters to everyone else, let’s not talk about ourselves.”
He would not be drawn on future tax cuts and sounded a note of caution over calls for public sector pay hikes in the face of soaring inflation.
Mr Johnson said: “What we can’t have is a situation in which increases in pay are just wiped out by further increases in prices.
“That’s why you have got to be responsible.”
Pressed over which matters of principle he might resign, he told the BBC, he said: “Well, for instance, I think that if our government decided, if it was put to me that we had to abandon the Ukrainian cause because it was simply getting too difficult, and that the cost of supporting that people in their heroic fight for freedom was too great in terms of inflation, in terms of economic damage, yeah, I think I would accept that I’d lost a very important argument and I would go, but I don’t see that.”
But he later denied saying this was the only reason that would cause him to step down.
“I didn’t say that – you asked me for an example of a matter of principle, I came up with one,” he said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has argued the Tory drubbing in Thursday’s by-elections do not indicate the outcome of the next general election.
Speaking to reporters in Rwanda, she said: “The reality is that incumbent governments often lose by-elections and often people want to send a message in a by-election to raise concerns with the Government.
“But that doesn’t make by-election results the predictor of election outcomes, it hasn’t been the predictor in the past and I don’t believe it will be the predictor of the next general election.”