Boris PULLS OUT of visit as ‘family member tests positive for covid’ amid backlash at his ‘non-apology’: PM tells MPs he was only taking one for the team with Commons mea culpa as MORE Tory MPs call for him to quit and Labour takes 10-POINT lead
- Boris Johnson mobilised Cabinet to back him following his apology for attending No10 ‘party’ in lockdown
- The PM admitted that he attended boozy bash in Downing Street garden at height of lockdown in May 2020
- He said he believed it was ‘work event’ but in ‘hindsight’ he should have found another way to thank staff
- Mr Johnson told MPs after PMQs that he had done nothing wrong and did not break any lockdown rules
- Tory MPs openly calling for him to quit as the party plunges in the polls with Labour taking a 10-point lead
Embattled Boris Johnson today dramatically axed a visit when he would have faced more questions about Partygate after a family member tested positive for Covid.
The PM cancelled the trip to Lancashire as he desperately mobilises Cabinet ministers to shore up his position after he admitted attending a boozy No10 gathering during the first Covid lockdown – but claimed he thought it was a ‘work event’ and was ‘technically’ inside the rules.
Mr Johnson is not required to isolate, but Downing Street said he was following advice to ‘limit contact with others’.
Meanwhile, in another blow deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has quit – although it is not clear whether there is any connection to the Partygate affair or wrangling over the Omicron response.
The limp mea culpa in the Commons yesterday and so-called ‘Operation Save Boris’ from allies have failed to quell mounting fury among the public and on the Conservative benches, with a handful of MPs now openly demanding Mr Johnson quits. Ex-minister Caroline Nokes is among the latest to declare Mr Johnson a ‘liability’.
Support from some ministers has also been less than fullsome, with Rishi Sunak notably waiting eight hours before merely tweeting that he had been right to apologise and people should wait for the result of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry into alleged lockdown breaches.
Mr Johnson risked inflaming the situation further after PMQs yesterday by telling MPs privately that he had done ‘nothing wrong’ and was ‘taking hits for something we don’t deserve’ – while Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said this morning that the premier did not believe he had broken the rules.
Meanwhile, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross overnight. Mr Rees-Mogg responded to Mr Ross’s call for the PM to resign by branding him a ‘lightweight’ figure.
A YouGov poll for the Times has laid bare the scale of the damage being suffered by the government, showing the Tories slumping five points to just 28 per cent in less than a week.
Meanwhile Labour has crept up to 38 per cent – the party’s biggest advantage since 2013. On an even swing across the country at an election, the figures would see the Conservatives lose 150 seats and put Keir Starmer in No10.
Six in ten voters believed Mr Johnson should resign, including 38 per cent of Tory voters from his 2019 landslide.
The research was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, but before Mr Johnson got to his feet in the Commons.
As the PM’s future hangs in the balance:
- Mr Johnson apologised privately to Tory MPs in the Commons tearoom for ‘all the c**p I’ve put you through’, but insisted it was ‘not his fault’;
- Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM of ‘lying through his teeth’ and called on him to quit; Grieving relatives of Covid victims stepped up calls for the PM to resign;
- Downing Street refused to say whether Mr Johnson had noticed tables laden with food and drink at the event – or if he had brought a bottle of wine into the garden.
Boris Johnson’s (left) limp mea culpa in the Commons has failed to quell mounting fury among the public and on the Conservative benches, with a handful of MPs now openly demanding he Johnson quits. Ex-minister Caroline Nokes (right) is among the latest to declare Mr Johnson a ‘liability’.
A YouGov poll for the Times has laid bare the scale of the damage being suffered by the government, showing the Tories slumping five points to just 28 per cent in less than a week
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross overnight. Mr Rees-Mogg responded to Mr Ross’s call for the PM to resign by branding him a ‘lightweight’ figure
How could Boris Johnson be ousted by Tory MPs?
Boris Johnson is under huge pressure over Partygate, with speculation that he might even opt to walk away.
But barring resignation, the Tories have rules on how to oust and replace the leader.
What is the mechanism for removing the Tory leader? Tory Party rules allow the MPs to force a vote of no confidence in their leader.
How is that triggered? A vote is in the hands of the chairman of the Tory Party’s backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
A vote of no confidence must be held if 15 per cent of Tory MPs write to the chairman. Currently that threshold is 55 MPs.
Letters are confidential unless the MP sending it makes it public. This means only Sir Graham knows how many letters there are.
What happens when the threshold is reached? A vote is held, with the leader technically only needing to win support from a simple majority of MPs
But in reality, a solid victory is essential for them to stay in post.
What happens if the leader loses?
The leader is sacked if they do not win a majority of votes from MPs, and a leadership contest begins in which they cannot stand.
However, they typically stay on as Prime Minister until a replacement is elected.
Mr Sunak, seen as a potential successor to Mr Johnson, avoided yesterday’s stormy PMQs by travelling more than 200 miles from London to Devon, said on Twitter late on Wednesday that Mr Johnson was ‘right to apologise’ over the lockdown party scandal.
More than 20 ministers including Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Communities Secretary Michael Gove were despatched to the airwaves and social media to publicly support the PM after his statement to the Commons failed to quell anger among Tory backbenchers.
Ministers were despatched to the airwaves and social media after a rare, grovelling public apology from the PM over lockdown-busting parties failed to quell anger among senior Conservatives.
Mr Johnson told the House he thought the bring-your-own-booze party in the No 10 garden in May 2020 was a ‘work event’.
By early evening, virtually all ministers had publicly backed Mr Johnson, with the exceptions of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who are both said to be ‘on manoeuvres’ to succeed him.
When the two senior ministers finally did tweet on the issue last night, there was a striking difference in their level of support.
Mr Sunak’s message said only that Mr Johnson was ‘right to apologise’ and he called for ‘patience’ while Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray conducted an inquiry into the affair.
In contrast, Ms Truss wrote: ‘The PM is delivering for Britain – from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth. I stand behind the Prime Minister 100 per cent as he takes our country forward.’
Mr Sunak also raised eyebrows yesterday by continuing with an engagement in Devon while Mr Johnson endured a bruising session of Prime Minister’s Questions. Ms Truss sat alongside Mr Johnson in the Commons.
One senior Conservative said the Chancellor had ‘done himself a lot of damage’ by trying to distance himself from the row while others pitched in to help. But other MPs stepped up pressure on the PM after he admitted spending 25 minutes at a boozy staff party in the No10 garden on May 20, 2020.
After Mr Ross said Mr Johnson’s position was ‘untenable’, Mr Rees-Mogg branded him ‘a lightweight’ on BBC’s Newsnight. Earlier in the day, he told LBC that he did not think the Scottish Tory leader was a ‘big figure’.
‘I don’t think it’s a surprise Douglas Ross takes this view. He’s never been a supporter of the prime minister. He has constantly made disobliging comments about the PM,’ Mr Rees-Mogg added.
Touring TV and radio studios this morning, Mr Lewis pleaded for people to wait for Sue Gray’s report into into what happened.
What were the rules for work gatherings on May 20, 2020 and how could Boris claim the No10 event did not break them?
On the date of the Downing Street ‘party’ on May 20, 2020 the rules on social gatherings were clear.
No more than two people from different households could mix indoors or outdoors.
Further than that, people were only allowed to leave home with a ‘reasonable excuse’.
However, there have been exemptions for those whose jobs require them to go to a workplace or work in larger groups.
While he acknowledged that the Downing Street bash should not have happened, Boris Johnson told the Commons that he had ‘believed implicitly that this was a work event’.
The PM insisted the event ‘could be said technically to fall within the guidance’.
The regulations from the time state that gatherings of more than two people are permitted in a ‘public place’ where ‘essential for work purposes’.
Guidance from the time adds that ‘workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace’.
But lawyers have noted that the Downing Street garden would not count as a ‘public place’.
The ‘reasonable excuses’ for leaving home include ‘to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living’.
It is not clear whether that would catch individuals who had travelled ‘for the purposes of work’, but decided not to return home immediately afterwards.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister who has spent the pandemic interpreting complex coronavirus laws and explaining them to the public on social media, said the PM’s statement was ‘obviously lawyered’ and ‘very much about his personal liability.’
In a series of posts on Twitter, he said: ‘The Johnson apology was carefully worded and obviously lawyered. He said that he attended because he ‘believed implicitly that this was a work event’, that ‘with hindsight’ he should have sent everyone back inside, and ‘technically’ it could be said to fall within the guidance…
‘This was only what *he* thought the event was … So defence is a personal one only and leaves open the possibility the event was something else without him realising.
‘This is very much about his personal liability – he is implicitly denying he knew what the event was, had seen the email or had anything to do with it. Because here’s the key point: on the wording of email (‘bring your own booze’) this couldn’t technically have been a work event.’
‘The Prime Minister has outlined that he doesn’t believe that he has done anything outside the rules. If you look at what the investigation finds, people will be able to take their own view of that at the time,’ he told Sky News.
Mr Lewis played down reports that Chancellor Rishi Sunak had been lukewarm in his support for Mr Johnson.
‘I have seen Rishi working with the Prime Minister. They work absolutely hand-in-hand. I know that Rishi has got support for the Prime Minister,’ he said.
‘What I have seen yesterday, and I have seen consistently through this, is the Cabinet have been completely joined-up, working together.’
Mr Johnson told the Commons that he thought the event was work-related, before touring the private tearoom at Parliament and apologising to MPs for putting them through ‘cr*p’. Others said that the PM conceded that he was being ‘electrocuted by the anger of the public’ over the scandal.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was the first out of the blocks to back her boss, saying an inquiry led by senior official Sue Gray must be allowed to go ahead.
Ms Dorries wrote on Twitter that the ‘PM was right to personally apologise earlier’, adding: ‘People are hurt and angry at what happened and he has taken full responsibility for that. The inquiry should now be allowed to its work and establish the full facts of what happened’.
Responding to her message, Mr Gove: ‘Nadine is right.’
And the former leadership hopeful also backed up the PM to the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, where he is reported to have said Mr Johnson ‘gets the big calls right’ and urged colleagues not to be ‘flaky’.
Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told ITV it was a ‘daft question’ when asked whether he would run again for the Tory leadership.
‘I’m fully supportive of this Prime Minister and I’m sure he will continue for many years to come,’ he said last night.
Ms Patel and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng expressed their support in a Whatsapp group for Tory MPs.
Mr Javid said: ‘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.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Times Radio: ‘I think the Prime Minister was very contrite today, he apologised and he took full responsibility.’
Meanwhile, Mr Rees-Mogg told the broadcaster: ‘I think the Prime Minister has got things right again and again and again. But like us all, he accepts that during a two-and-a-half-year period, there will be things that with hindsight would have been done differently.’
Asked if the PM will resign if Ms Gray’s report found wrongdoing, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: ‘I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves here. We should take this a step at a time.’
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also backed the PM, as did International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Cop26 President Alok Sharma.
However, Mr Sunak tepidly said on Twitter the PM was ‘right to apologise’ and that he supports Mr Johnson’s ‘request for patience’ as Ms Gray conducts her investigation.
And other Tories broke cover to slam the premier. York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said the claim the gathering at Downing Street was work-related ‘will not wash with the British public, who at the relevant time were making significant sacrifices’. Fellow Conservative William Wragg said Mr Johnson’s position was ‘untenable’.
Addressing the House yesterday, Mr Johnson said he understood public ‘fury’ and ‘took responsibility’, but said he had ‘implicitly’ believed it was a work event – even though around 100 people were invited and urged to bring drinks.
‘I bitterly regret it. I wish we could have done things differently,’ he said.
Covid rules in England at the time made clear that all social gatherings of more than two people were banned, and people were only meant to leave home if they had a ‘reasonable excuse’ such as going to work. But there was no specific restriction on drinking alcohol in workplaces.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responded that the PM should do the ‘decent thing and resign’, saying the public knows he is ‘lying through his teeth’.
‘The party is over, Prime Minister,’ he taunted.
The picture had been looking grim for Mr Johnson, with Tories up in arms following the emergence of a bombshell email from his top civil servant inviting 100 staff to the event.
Challenged on whether he would resign if she found he breached lockdown rules, Mr Johnson merely said he would respond ‘appropriately’.
Tory MPs studiously dodged asking questions about ‘Partygate’ during the session, instead going on topics including abolishing the BBC licence fee, bus services and Roman fossils.
Adam Wagner, a barrister who specialises in interpreting Covid regulations, said the PM’s statement was ‘obviously lawyered’ and ‘very much about his personal liability.’
Boris Johnson is driven away from the House of Commons, after attending PMQs on January 12, 2022
However, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader and was notably absent on a visit to Devon earlier in the day, gave the PM tepid backing late on Wednesday
The backing for Mr Johnson from the Tory benches seemed muted – and Keir Starmer raged that he should do the ‘decent thing and resign’, saying the public thinks he is ‘lying through his teeth’
At a stormy PMQs, Mr Johnson (left) said he wanted to ‘thank’ staff at the event in May 2020 but recognised that in ‘hindsight’ it should not have happened. But Keir Starmer, right, said he should resign
The Prime Minister’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds invited more than 100 staff to bring their own drinks to No10’s lavish gardens on May 20, 2020 to ‘make the most of the lovely weather’, an email leaked to ITV News shows
Senior ministers started rallying around Mr Johnson in what looked to be a coordinated effort to shore his position
Some Tory MPs also called for a pause in the wake of the PM’s partial apology
Veteran Tory MP Roger Gale – a regular critic of the PM – said after the PMQs exchanges that Mr Johnson was on ‘very thin ice’
One Tory aide watching the scenes in the chamber at lunchtime told MailOnline: ‘This is so very very excruciating.’
However, No10 will have been initially relieved that few of Mr Johnson’s own benches laid into him afterwards.
One of them was veteran Tory MP Roger Gale – a regular critic of the PM – who said Mr Johnson was a ‘dead man walking’ and on ‘very thin ice indeed’.
But the criticism ramped up again later. In a statement to The Yorkshire Post, Mr Sturdy said: ‘The fact is, that at a time when people were not allowed to attend the funeral of their loved ones or comfort their dying relatives, when fines were being issued for people meeting for a coffee in the park, Downing Street should not have been holding social events of any sort.
‘I share the frustration and disappointment of the many constituents who have contacted me over this, and assure them that I will make this known in holding the Prime Minister to account.’
Mr Wragg told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme it was a ‘tragedy’ that the situation had arisen but he could not see a way for the issues to ‘go away’.
‘A series of unforced errors are deeply damaging to the perception of the party.
‘The Prime Minister’s position is untenable.’
Mr Wragg said Tory MPs were ‘worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible’ and Mr Johnson should ‘do the right thing’ so the party can move on.
‘I’m afraid the inevitable conclusion is the only way to do that is with a change,’ he said.
Tory MP Neil Hudson said the PM’s apology was an ‘important step forward’ but ‘I will not defend the indefensible’ and there should be ‘serious consequences’ if rules were broken.
The Penrith and the Border MP said: ‘I was in the House of Commons Chamber today and I welcome that the PM came and admitted that he was at the May 20 2020 gathering and that he apologised for that.
‘That was an important step forward.
‘As I said yesterday, let’s see the result of the investigation by the Civil Service and potentially the Metropolitan Police and see what the findings tell us.
‘But I will not defend the indefensible and I fully share the country’s outrage and upset when people up and down the land were making huge personal and sometimes tragic sacrifices to do the right thing and obey the public health rules.
Another senior backbencher told MailOnline Mr Johnson was in a ‘holding pattern’ again, but added: ‘The trouble is with holding patterns is that they need fuel to be sustained.’
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