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”.
But while he has repeatedly rejected calls for him to quit over the partygate scandal, Mr Johnson suggested he would stand down if he had to “abandon the Ukrainian cause”.
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 Wakefield to Labour.
The losses have reignited questions within the Conservative Party over Mr Johnson’s leadership, following a recent Tory revolt by MPs.
Speaking to Sky News at the high commissioner’s residence in Kigali, 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 backbench manoeuvring to oust him, Mr Johnson said: “Golden rule 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.”
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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.