Calls within the Conservative Party for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step aside are growing louder, as a number of senior Tories say he should go after Johnson apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No 10 during England’s first lockdown.
The Prime Minister insisted he believed it had been a “work event” and Downing Street said he had never been sent an email encouraging staff to bring a bottle and “make the most of the lovely weather”.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, however, was largely absent yesterday, skipping the House of Commons session and in a further sign of mounting Tory anger, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross called for him to quit while another MP branded the Prime Minister a “dead man walking”.
In the Commons, Johnson said that he attended the May 20 2020 gathering for around 25 minutes to “thank groups of staff” but “with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside”.
The Prime Minister acknowledged public anger, saying: “I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
He said an inquiry was examining the situation but accepted “there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility”.
Downing Street refused to say whether his then fiancee Carrie Symonds had attended the gathering, if Johnson had noticed tables laden with food and drink or if he had brought a bottle of his own into the garden.
All such questions were a matter for senior official Sue Gray’s inquiry, the Prime Minister’s press secretary told reporters.
But she insisted Johnson had not been sent the invitation email from his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds encouraging colleagues to “bring your own booze” to the garden.
At just after 6pm on the day of the event, the time the invitation had specified for people to gather to “make the most of the lovely weather”, Johnson went into the garden to thank staff for their efforts and stayed for 25 minutes.
“I believed implicitly that this was a work event,” he said.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.”Boris Johnson
“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 for meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies.”
During the bruising Commons appearance, Johnson apologised in various forms 12 times over the party – using the word “apologies” once, “apologise” seven times and “regret” four times.
Johnson’s press secretary insisted that he was not a liar and “he is not resigning”.
‘No longer tenable’
Ross, MP for Moray, said Johnson’s position was “no longer tenable” and “I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives”.
He told STV he had spoken to the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon “and I set down my reasons and I explained to him my position”.
At least a further 19 MSPs followed suit, with former Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw backing Ross, saying: “Given that the PM has now confirmed he attended a rule-breaking gathering, he has lost the confidence of the country.”
While North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale said it was already clear that Johnson had misled Parliament and was politically a “dead man walking”.
Sir Roger said last night “you don’t have bring-a-bottle work events in Downing Street, so far as I’m aware,” and “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.”
Tory MP William Wragg, chairman of the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “The Prime Minister’s position is untenable and I don’t believe 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.
“I think it is for the Conservative Party – if not the Prime Minister in fact – to make that decision.”Tory MP William Wragg
And York Outer Tory MP, Julian Sturdy, said Johnson’s claim he thought the gathering was work-related “will not wash with the British public, who at the relevant time were making significant sacrifices”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also called on the Prime Minister to resign.
He added: “The party’s 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?”
The embattled Prime Minister also faced calls to quit from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.
Hannah Brady, from the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said that, if Johnson does not step down, then his MPs have a “moral duty” to remove him.
Her father Shaun Brady, 55, died just a few days before the “bring your own booze” event and his death certificate was signed on the day it was held.
The Commons chamber was packed in anticipation of Johnson’s first public response to the leaked email about the May 20 2020 event although Chancellor Rishi Sunak, viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader, was notably absent on a visit to Devon.
But Cabinet colleagues were out in force on Twitter, with Rishi Sunak, Nadine Dorries, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid supporting the apology, while Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told broadcasters that Johnson would be in post “for many years to come”.
The Prime Minister himself chatted to MPs in the Commons tea room after his appearance in the Chamber in an effort to shore up support.
Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, now one of the Prime Minister’s fiercest opponents, said the claim that the event was “technically within the rules” is “bullshit”.
But he said Johnson’s only alternative would be to admit that he broke the rules and resign.
In a sign of the public clamour for answers from the Prime Minister, ITV’s This Morning cut live to the House of Commons to hear his apology.