Boris Johnson has sought to defuse a row triggered by his declaration that he wanted to remain in office until the 2030s, by saying he meant he was focused on his reform agenda.
Coming after two huge byelection defeats revived talk in the Conservative party of Johnson being forced out of office within weeks or months, the prime minister’s comment about already planning a third term prompted a former cabinet minister to say he was “completely delusional”.
Johnson sought to clarify his remark when he spoke to reporters at the G7 summit in Bavaria, Germany, on Sunday morning. But as his lengthy trip abroad continues – he has been in Rwanda for the Commonwealth summit, and will travel to Spain for a Nato summit when the G7 is over – at home some Tory MPs are increasingly focused on what they can do to oust him.
Before he left Rwanda, Johnson was asked if he intended to serve a second full term in office, if he won the election, taking him to 2028 or 2029. Johnson replied: “At the moment I am thinking actively about the third term and you know, what could happen then. But I will review that when I get to it.”
Asked what he meant by leaving after a third term, Johnson said that would mean staying in office until “the mid-2030s”.
No 10 initially suggested that Johnson might have been joking, but this morning the PM said he was making a point about being focused on the long-term challenges facing the country.
“What I’m saying is this is a government that is getting on with delivering for the people of this country and we’ve got a huge amount to do,” he told reporters at the G7.
“In the immediate future we’ve got to get people through the current global inflationary pressures, the post-Covid, Ukraine-exacerbated inflationary pressures that people have got, the energy price spikes that we have got.
“But at the same time we have got a massive agenda of reform and improvement, a plan for a stronger economy, whereby we have to reform our energy markets, our housing markets, the way our transport networks run, our public sector – we’ve got to cut the cost of government.”
Johnson said his golden rule was to “focus on what we are doing”.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, adopted a similar line when asked to defend Johnson’s third-term comment in interviews on Sunday morning. He told Sky News: “Seeing that kind of zest – and let’s be frank, somebody who is enjoying doing the job and wants and has got plans for the country – having that ability to look forward, I think, is a good thing.
“We often get criticised in politics when we look short-term, at just the next day, the next election, the next vote. Actually we’ve got somebody as prime minister who wants to be looking long-term.”
Other Tories were less generous. One former supporter of the prime minister, an ex-cabinet minister, told the Observer that Johnson’s remarks were “completely delusional”, while a senior MP from a “red wall” seat said Johnson was “showing increasing signs of a bunker mentality, and that never ends well”.
Prime ministers often duck questions about how long they intend to remain in office because setting an early end-date tends to undermine authority, while promising “to go on and on” – as Margaret Thatcher once did – only infuriates colleagues looking forward to a handover.
Johnson’s remarks sounded particularly hubristic because earlier this month 41% of Conservative MPs voted against him in a confidence ballot. Campaigners also cited Johnson’s unpopularity with voters as a major factor in the Tories losing the two byelections, particularly in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems set a record for the size of a majority overturned in a byelection (24,239).
MPs opposed to Johnson are planning to use the forthcoming elections to the Conservative 1922 Committee to continue efforts to unseat him. If a majority of anti-Johnson MPs are elected to the executive, they could remove the current rule preventing another vote of no confidence before June 2023.