Boris Johnson was today facing open revolt from within his own party, after his apology for attending a Downing Street party during lockdown failed to quell backbench anger.
The prime minister’s claim that he thought the garden drinks in May 2020 was a work event was greeted with derision from the opposition benches in the House of Commons, with Sir Keir Starmer branding it “ridiculous” and calling on Johnson to resign. The chair of the Commons Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, accused the PM of treating voters as “stupid”.
The Labour leader’s demand was echoed by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who led a phalanx of at least 14 Holyrood Tories calling on Johnson to go.
And there were calls for his resignation from senior Tory backbencher William Wragg as well as vocal Johnson critic Sir Roger Gale, who described the PM as a “dead man walking” politically.
One former minister told The Independent that MPs “in double figures” had submitted letters of no confidence in the prime minister to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady – with some letters going in after the PM’s dramatic apology in the House of Commons.
But with 54 letters needed to trigger a confidence vote, many Tories said Johnson had succeeded in “buying time” until the release of a report by Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray into the string of alleged parties at No 10.
Several said that a negative verdict in the Gray report, expected as early as next week, could spell the end for Johnson.
Former minister Dan Poulter told The Independent: “Should the PM be found to have actively misled parliament or if he faces criminal sanction – or both – then his position would be untenable.”
But Mr Ross said Mr Johnson should not wait for Ms Gray’s verdict.
After meeting the PM following his public apology, the Scottish Tory leader said: “He is the prime minister, it is his government that put these rules in place, and he has to be held to account for his actions.
“I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives.”
Mr Wragg, who chairs the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said the prime minister’s position was now “untenable”.
“A series of unforced errors are deeply damaging to the perception of the party,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
“I don’t think it should be left to the findings of a civil servant to determine the future of the prime minister and indeed who governs this country.”
Mr Johnson faced one of the most high-stakes moments of his political career at prime minister’s questions in the Commons, following the publication of an email from his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds inviting up to 100 Downing Street staff to “socially distanced drinks” at a time when strictly-enforced Covid restrictions allowed meetings of only two people outside the home.
He told MPs he had spent 25 minutes thanking staff in the sun-drenched rose garden, but insisted: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged the “rage” felt by voters who believe that Covid rules were not being followed by those who were imposing them on the rest of the country.
And he said that “with hindsight” he now accepted he should have ordered staffers back inside and “found some other way to thank them”.
But he added: “I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.”
Sir Keir dismissed the PM’s apology as “worthless” and his explanation as “so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public”.
Branding Mr Johnson “a man without shame”, Sir Keir told the Commons: “The party is over, prime minister. The only question is: will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?”
In response to a hail of demands for his removal from the opposition benches, Mr Johnson pleaded for MPs to await the outcome of the Gray report.
While there were some cheers from Conservative MPs as Mr Johnson entered the chamber, a pall of gloom settled over the Tory benches as the PM delivered his apology.
While a handful of MPs earned guffaws of derision from the opposition benches by pitching soft questions about dishwashers or bus services to the prime minister, the majority sat through the 40-minute grilling in stony silence.
Afterwards, Tory MPs welcomed Mr Johnson’s apology but said he had not drawn a line under the affair.
One former minister said Mr Johnson would be in the clear if Ms Gray concluded attending the party was “an error of judgement” – but added: “If she decides he has broken the ministerial code, by misleading the house, then he will be in a very, very difficult position indeed.”
Another MP with an apparently safe southern seat said that – in the wake of the North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham by-election defeats – “no seat is safe” while Mr Johnson remains in office.
“It’s s***,” the MP said, “my constituents don’t want him to apologise – they want him to be honest and hard-working, but he can’t ever do that of course”.
One senior MP told The Independent: “There is immense concern, and frankly the excuse doesn’t get anywhere near washing. There are a lot of meetings going on discussing what to do about this and when.”
Sir Roger Gale was one of few MPs to speak publicly, saying: “I’m sorry, you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events in Downing Street, so far as I’m aware. And you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events that are advertised or invited by the prime minister’s private secretary.
“I think the time has come for either the prime minister to go with dignity as his choice, or for the 1922 Committee to intervene.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey wrote to Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick to urge her to interview Mr Johnson under caution as part of a full police investigation into the 20 May event.
“The police must reassure the public that justice will be done and there isn’t one rule for them and another for Boris Johnson and his colleagues in Downing Street,” said Sir Ed.
Downing Street insisted that Mr Johnson had not received the email invitation from Mr Reynolds and had not instructed him to send it out. But the PM’s press secretary gave no other explanation of how he became aware the event was taking place.
Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings dismissed his claim that he thought the gathering was a work event as “bulls***”.
With around 40 staff believed to have drunk wine, beer and gin and eaten party food from a long table in the No 10 garden, the event was “obviously totally social not work (unlike all the meetings in the garden) – no way ‘technically within the rules’”, tweeted the PM’s former right-hand man – who previously said he warned against the party while in Downing Street.