Allies rally around Boris as Tories want him to quit

Friday, Jan 14, 2022

LONDON: Boris Johnson’s future is hanging in the balance as Cabinet ministers pleaded with Tory MPs to wait for the findings of an official investigation into Downing Street parties before calling for him to quit.

The Prime Minister apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020, during the first coronavirus lockdown, but insisted he believed it was a work event and could “technically” have been within the rules.

Johnson’s confirmation that he was at the event led to four Tory MPs publicly calling for him to quit, with more privately voicing concerns about his leadership. The Prime Minister pulled out of a planned visit to a vaccination centre in Lancashire on Thursday, where he would have faced questions from the media about his actions, because a family member tested positive for coronavirus.

Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis urged people to wait for the outcome of an inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray into alleged lockdown-busting parties in No 10 and Whitehall before making judgments on the Prime Minister’s future.

“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 said.

Cabinet ministers rallied round to defend Johnson, but the late interventions of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – both tipped as potential successors – did little to instil confidence in his future.

While Johnson endured a difficult session of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Sunak had notably spent the day away from London on a visit in Devon. But Northern Ireland Secretary Lewis told Sky News: “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.”

Lewis insisted Johnson was the right person to be Prime Minister and “I think we will be able to go forward and win a general election”. Johnson faced open revolt from one wing of his party, as Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged him to quit, with almost all Tory MSPs supporting the call.

Ross was dismissed as a “lightweight figure” by Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg following his intervention. In the House on Thursday, Rees-Mogg defended his comments saying Ross held office in the Conservative Party.

“It seems to me that people who hold office ought to support the leader of the party. That is the honourable and proper thing to do,” he said.

In Westminster, three other Tory MPs said Johnson should go – Sir Roger Gale, former minister Caroline Nokes and chairman of the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee William Wragg.

In the Commons on Wednesday the Prime Minister said he recognised “with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside” instead of spending 25 minutes in the No 10 garden thanking staff for their work on May 20 2020.

Downing Street insisted he had not been sent an email from his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, encouraging colleagues to go to the garden for “socially distanced drinks” to “make the most of this lovely weather” – and urging them to “bring your own booze”.

Johnson told MPs “there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility”. Lewis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Prime Minister was “very, very sincere” in his apology for what happened.

“He does recognise the anger and upset and frustration that people feel at what they perceive happened at No 10,” Lewis said. “He recognises that and takes responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s Government suffered another blow as one of its most effective communicators during the pandemic announced his departure.

Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam is to leave his role as England’s deputy chief medical officer at the end of March. Sir Jonathan is to take up a new role as the Pro-Vice Chancellor for the faculty of medicine and health sciences at University of Nottingham.