What now for Boris Johnson? He's lost two by-elections and a cabinet minister before breakfast, and isn't even in the country. His response from the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda was that he would keep going, saying:
“I've got to listen to what people are saying, in particular to the difficulties people are facing over the cost of living, which is I think for most people the number one issue.
I understand that the No. 10 plan to move on from these results had been to push up talk of an early general election in the autumn of this year. The Prime Minister had certainly been giving those signals to MPs who he has spoken to this week, suggesting it was time to 'get ready'. The advantage of getting everyone excited about an election is that it focuses the minds of the Tory party on the choice the country would face between them and Labour. The assumption in Downing Street seems to be that this would stop them from complaining about Johnson and force them to get behind him.
It is much more difficult to push an early election line when the man in charge of your party's campaigning has just quit with a letter that gets worse on every re-read. Oliver Dowden's lines about someone needing to take responsibility initially seem to apply to him, but then this immediately begs the question of why the person causing the trouble – Johnson himself – isn't taking a similar level of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Similarly, saying that the party cannot continue with business as usual points to anxiety within the Cabinet about the PM's ability to take the party into the next election. Dowden was part of the planning for this early election messaging – but has clearly concluded that it would be senseless.
And yet when Dominic Raab replaced Dowden on the post-results broadcast round this morning, he continued to drop heavy hints about the possibility of an early election. He talked about what would happen 'when we are out of by-election territory and into general election territory', and 'the choice at a general election'. This is either because the Johnson camp wasn't nimble enough to respond to Dowden's resignation with a change of messaging, or because they still think it's worth pursuing to try and change the conversation and the mood in the party.