Defiant Boris clings on with Cabinet support as senior Tories call for him to quit

13 January 2022, 07:09 | Updated: 13 January 2022, 08:55

Tory MPs join calls for Boris Johnson to resign
Tory MPs join calls for Boris Johnson to resign. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Hinton

Boris Johnson is resisting calls to resign from senior Tories after a "half-hearted" apology to the nation over the partygate scandal.

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But whilst Tories including Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross and Sir Roger Gale have said Mr Johnson must quit, his Cabinet - including big names like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel - have rallied around him following his admission he attended a "bring your own booze" party in No10 in May 2020.

But others have been less friendly, with former Tory minister Michael Portillo launching a blistering attack on the Prime Minister and accusing him of "poisoning the brand of the Conservative Party".

"If I were in the Conservative Party I suppose I would want to make this calculation," the former MP, whose politics aligned with those of Margaret Thatcher, told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

"The election could be in three years time - is there any chance that in three years time people will have forgotten and moved on from this incident?

"Because at the moment it's perfectly clear that Boris is, I think, a poisonous brand and he's poisoning the brand of the Conservative Party."

He said Mr Johnson had gone from being an asset to a "liability", with the party "constantly waiting for the next scandal to hit".

Attacks on Mr Johnson's leadership have also come from even closer to home, with Douglas Ross saying he felt Boris Johnson could no longer continue in the position, and senior Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale calling the PM a "dead man walking".

Some of his closest allies have also seemed reluctant to back him.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak waited a full eight hours before posting his support, leading to speculation that - as a potential successor to Mr Johnson - he was not keen to publicly throw his support behind the leader.

When he did finally speak up he said the Prime Minister was right to apologise and wait for the outcome of the inquiry, words described by many as 'lukewarm'.

Liz Truss, another potential replacement for the top job, also waited before posting her support, although her words were stronger, saying she was "100 per cent" behind Mr Johnson.

Read more: Not an 'easy day' for Boris Johnson: Jacob Rees-Mogg defends PM in partygate scandal

Read more: Boris Johnson is 'poisoning the brand of the Conservative Party', Portillo says

The Prime Minister, who has been left fighting for his political life amid fears of a Tory revolt, issued a humiliating apology to MPs and the nation today following his admission.

He said he spent 25 minutes at the gathering on May 20, 2020, in the garden of No10 where tables were reportedly laid out with sausage rolls, crisps, other picnic food and drinks.

Asked if he thought the PM should resign, senior Tory Mr Ross said: "I made that clear. There was one simple question to answer yesterday, indeed from Monday night when we saw this invitation which was to more than 100 people asking them to join others in the Downing Street garden and bring their own booze.

"If the Prime Minister was there, and he accepted today that he was then I felt he could not continue.

"What we also heard from the Prime Minister today was an apology and he said with hindsight he would have done things differently, which for me is an acceptance from the Prime Minister that it was wrong and therefore, I don't want to be in this position, but I am in this position now, where I don't think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives", he told STV News.

Baroness Ruth Davidson and more than half the Tories in the Scottish Parliament also supported Douglas Ross' calls for resignation.

Read more: 'I know the rage they feel': Boris Johnson's full statement over partygate

Read more: Grinning Rishi Sunak pictured 200 miles from London as Boris faced 'partygate' grilling

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Senior Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale told LBC's Shelagh Fogarty: "I frankly think that Boris Johnson has done a good job delivering certain things, but I think we've now got to the stage where frankly we have to find another leader."

When asked whether Boris Johnson had ruined the conservative party, Sir Roger Gale replied: "That is not true. The conservative party has historically had up and downs and right now we are going through a rough patch at the moment I accept that entirely. But what Mr Johnson has done has been not all bad by any means."

Chairman of the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee and Tory MP for Hazel Grove, William Wragg, echoed similar calls stating the Prime Minister's position is "untenable" after the latest scandal.

Minister Rachel Maclean warned there are consequences for those who have broken the law regarding coronavirus restrictions.

Speaking to Eddie Mair on Wednesday evening, small business minister Paul Scully also said it was "absolutely" right for the Prime Minister to apologise.

Eddie grilled the minister following the humiliating day for the Conservative party, asking: "What was he apologising for?"

"I think the approach that was taken," Mr Scully said.

"I think we can see - you don't have to go far to see - the frustration, the annoyance of people who have done so much over the last two years to try and work through this. There have been many people hospitalised, many people have died and many people's businesses have been affected.

"It was right that the prime minister apologised for the approach and that as he said, if he could go back again he would've taken a different approach."

Eddie joked: "He's captain hindsight isn't he?"

Mr Scully defended the prime minister, who he says he has known around 13 years, saying: "Clearly it is hindsight - he wishes he had broken up the gathering at the time.

"What I'm really interested in is the further detail from Sue Gray's inquiry."

Eddie pressed the minister further, asking: "How long does it take you to realise you're at a party?"

Mr Scully avoided the question, instead saying he is "really interested in the detail" of the inquiry into the allegations.

He claimed it is an "odd situation" at No10 as there are a "couple of flats and a workplace", and said "as far as he understood" Mr Johnson "had not seen the email" that invited the 100 people to the 'BYOB' event.

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are among those who have slated the PM after he made the grovelling apology.

Branding Mr Johnson as a "a walking public health hazard" they demanded his resignation stating "he needs to go".

In a statement, the Bereaved Families said: "The Prime Minister's lies have finally caught up with him.

"Not content with kicking bereaved families like ours in the teeth by breaking the rules he set and then lying to us about it, he's now taking the British public for fools by pretending he ‘didn’t know it was a party’.

"Every time he lies to us, he pours more salt into the wounds of those who have already lost so much to this pandemic, but that doesn’t stop him.

"He’s incapable of telling the truth and he needs to go.

"The Prime Minister is now a walking public health hazard, who has lost the trust, respect and good faith of the public.

"If restrictions are needed to protect lives in the future, people will simply laugh at him.

"He has no moral authority and will cost lives.

"He has broken his own rules and if he had any decency he would now resign, rather than hide behind an internal 'inquiry'.

"If he doesn’t, his MPs should remove him. They have a moral duty to do so."

Other Tory MPs rallied behind the Prime Minister, with Sir Christopher Chope saying he had "never heard such an abject apology" in his time in parliament, adding he believed it was "genuinely sincere".

A WhatsApp message that emerged on social media appeared to show Home Secretary Priti Patel returning the PM’s loyalty to her during the bullying row.

The text reads: "Team, today the Prime Minister has given his heartfelt apologies and taken responsibility for what has happened.Thanks to Boris’ majority, the work of this Government is so extensive, we continue to bring forward some of the biggest reforms in decades to Level Up- to the NHS, asylum system, housing and more.

"Now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel and back Boris to deliver on the People’s Priorities."

Health Secretary Sajid Javid also came to the PM's defence, taking to twitter to say: "I completely understand why people feel let down. The PM did the right thing by apologising. Now we need to let the investigation complete its work.

"We have so much to get on with including rolling out boosters, testing and antivirals - so we can live with Covid."

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a tweet she stands behind the Prime Minister "100%" as "he takes our country forward".

She said Mr Johnson is "delivering for Britain - from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth".

Mr Johnson broke his silence on the newest partygate revelations, saying he spent around 25 minutes at the "bring your own booze" party in May 2020, which 100 people were reportedly invited to, when England was in lockdown.

However, he told MPs during Wednesday's PMQs: "No 10 is a big department with a garden as an extension of the office which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus.

"When I went into that garden just after six on May 20, 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event."

A leaked email appeared to show civil servant Martin Reynolds, Boris Johnson's principal private secretary, inviting more than 100 Downing Street staff to a "bring your own booze" event.

Read more: 'I know the rage they feel': Boris Johnson's full statement over partygate

Mr Johnson had kept tight-lipped over the revelations but was forced to respond during Wednesday's PMQs in the House of Commons.

"I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months," Mr Johnson told MPs."I know the anguish they have been through - unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love."

"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.

"And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility."

He added: "I should have recognised that even if it [the garden event] 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."

Sir Keir Starmer retorted: "There we have it. After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road.

"His defence ... that he didn't realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public.

"He's finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?"

Mr Johnson's apology did not wash with several MPs.Labour's Chris Bryant said: "I mean how stupid does the Prime Minister think the British people are?

"The worst of it is he's already managed to completely destroy Allegra Stratton's career, he's tarnished the reputation of Lord Geidt, and now he's making fools of every single MP who cheered him earlier, every single one who goes out on the radio and television to defend this shower of shenanigans.

"Would it not be absolutely despicable if, in the search for a scapegoat, some junior member of staff ends up losing their job, but he kept his?"

Mr Johnson said he should wait for the results of civil servant Sue Gray's inquiry into the partygate and added: "I'm grateful to him for his party political advice. I don't agree with him. I've come to this House to make amends, to explain what happened on May 20, and to apologise."

Earlier, Government ministers refused to defend Mr Johnson in front of broadcasters including LBC.

Nick Ferrari said: "Indeed no one is doing the ministerial round of politicians and you can only surmise because of partygate.

"If I am in any way impugning you Mr Shapps, I apologise, if you've caught Covid or whatever it might be, or if there's Covid in your family you have my sincere and deepest apologies.

"But I would suggest Mr Shapps, with whom I've locked horns on a number of occasions, is not doing the round because of partygate."

Read more: Mum who lost daughter, 14, during May 2020 lockdown too devastated to say the PM's name

Read more: Two thirds of Brits say Boris should quit over Partygate, and Tory MPs left 'humiliated'

Mr Johnson had ducked an urgent question in the House of Commons on Tuesday, instead dispatching Cabinet Office minister and paymaster general Michael Ellis to handle the debate.

He insisted an investigation into alleged parties involving Government staff when England was under Covid restrictions would uncover any wrongdoing, and disciplinary action would follow if any rules were broken.

Public fury has continued to mount after weeks of allegations about various No10 events during coronavirus restrictions.

MPs wept during the emotionally-charged Commons session on Tuesday, with DUP MP Jim Shannon unable to finish his question to Mr Ellis as he spoke about his mother-in-law's death from Covid.

Amid calls for Mr Johnson to explain if he attended the party, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said if he went, his position would be "untenable" and he would have "lost all moral authority to lead the country".