David Cameron is under pressure to fire George Osborne as the Tories' political strategist, with his MPs demanding he hire the election guru who helped Boris Johnson to win a second term as London Mayor, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.
Senior party figures are demanding that Mr Johnson's campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, described as a "genius strategist", be appointed immediately amid warnings of a "year of turbulence" from MPs who believe they are led by a Westminster clique that has never won an election.
The Tory victory over Labour's Ken Livingstone late on Friday evening was closer than expected – 1,054,811 to Ken Livingstone's 992,273 – but will briefly reassure Mr Cameron, who faced the prospect of a defeated Mr Johnson seeking to return to the Commons. Elsewhere, the Tories lost more than 400 council seats.
Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson made a short joint public appearance at City Hall yesterday to mark the win. The Prime Minister said it was "a campaign the whole Conservative Party got behind". But Mr Johnson pointedly noted that as well as securing Tory votes he was able to "reach people across the city with a message that resonated with them in tough times". Earlier he brandished his party credentials, declaring on Radio 4: "My programme is absolutely, avowedly conservative with a big C or a little C."
It is this broad appeal to voters of all parties that has electrified the Tory ranks. The double mayoral election winner has now become a totem for Tory dissatisfaction with the party leadership. Critics claim Mr Osborne's day-to-day responsibilities as Chancellor and a member of the coalition's decision-making "quad" of ministers means he is not able to "take a step back and think through strategy properly". As general-election campaign chief, Mr Osborne is increasingly blamed for the Tories' failure to secure an overall majority in 2010.
"If we want to win next time, we want Lynton Crosby," said a Tory minister. "Lynton is a first-class campaigner, and to be blunt, we missed that in 2010." Mr Crosby is an Australian political strategist, described as a "master of the dark arts" who masterminded four successive election victories for John Howard in Australia. But he failed to help Michael Howard become the UK's prime minister in 2005.
Mr Cameron is known to be an admirer of Mr Crosby. Tory MPs yesterday made direct appeals to Mr Crosby to take charge of their beleaguered campaign machine. Greg Hands, a former ministerial aide to Mr Osborne, wrote on Twitter: "Great win for Boris. Another thought – why wasn't the brilliant Lynton Crosby Tory campaign manager in 2010?" Robert Halfon, a Tory MP, told The IoS: "Labour are second to none in their Leninist discipline. We need to be as ruthless as them. Lynton is brilliant at that. What we need are bare-knuckle fighters."
Mr Halfon, MP for Harlow, where Labour made gains in Thursday's local polls, said the traditional Tory message of aspiration had become lost under talk of austerity. "People feel we are not giving them ladders up, but we are not giving them a safety net either."
Mr Johnson insisted yesterday that he wanted to "discharge my mandate and my duty" as Mayor – playing down suggestions that he could stand as an MP in 2015 and become leader if Mr Cameron lost the general election. But insiders pointed out that Mr Johnson could easily return to the Commons in a by-election after his mayoral term finishes in 2016.
Mr Johnson's path to the leadership has become clearer since the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, became embroiled in the Murdoch/BSkyB emails drama last month. At the same time, The IoS understands that Mr Osborne is secretly enjoying Mr Hunt's discomfort because the Chancellor saw him as a rival for the Tory crown. This leaves the tantalising prospect of Mr Osborne and Mr Johnson going head to head in a leadership battle in the middle of the next Parliament, if Mr Cameron steps aside.
A friend of Mr Johnson said: "Boris has shown he is able to win over Labour, Liberal Democrat and other voters... As far as David Cameron is concerned, clearly it is choppy waters. Boris's strategy is to do a second term as mayor, to do it as well as he can, and then see what happens... But Boris is not a plotter. The party is not going to get rid of David Cameron, and doesn't want to."
However, there is growing unease at the lack of political direction at the top of the party. There is particular anger even among ministers at the self-inflicted chaos of the seven weeks since Mr Osborne's Budget. "Whatever preparation there was for the Budget was inadequate," said one senior minister. "And the ability to communicate it was pretty poor."
In a rare moment of humility, last night the Chancellor conceded mistakes had been made, with tax cuts for low earners overshadowed by the granny-tax and pasty-tax rows. "The way the Budget was presented meant this message wasn't heard," he wrote in the Mail on Sunday. "I take responsibility for that. Let me take it on the chin."
But rebel Tory MP Nadine Dorries stepped up the pressure, claiming the 46 signatures needed for a vote of no confidence in the party leadership could be collected by Christmas.
Ministers complain of the Government being too "Whitehall-centric" and accuse Downing Street of "picking the wrong battles". Leading figures on the right of the party, meanwhile, including John Redwood and David Davis, promise to publish an alternative Queen's Speech tomorrow setting out measures on tax, crime and Europe aimed at pleasing the Tory heartlands. Mr Redwood wrote on his blog yesterday: "The Conservatives in coalition need to wrestle with the main problem that was present on many doorsteps. People feel their living standards have been squeezed too much over the last four years. They want the Government to... tax them less and take some of the inflationary pressures off their budgets."
Mr Johnson's father, Stanley, refused to rule out the possibility of his son as future leader, saying: "Who knows?" Asked by the BBC why Boris bucked the national trend, he said: "Because he had the charisma and because people believe he is a man who says what he means and does what he says, and that's something that counts."
Additional reporting by Charles Engwell