Boris Johnson’s admission that he attended a Number 10 “bring your own booze” party during lockdown has sparked infighting within the Conservative party and division among MPs over calls for the prime minister to resign.
Johnson made a partial apology on Wednesday, insisting he had believed the evening gathering in May 2020 was a “work event”.
But leaders of the Scottish Conservative party and a handful of his own English MPs have urged him to quit, with many warning it was only a matter of time before he faced a leadership challenge.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, deepened internal Tory disquiet on Wednesday night when he dismissed Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, as having “always been quite a lightweight figure”.
Rees-Mogg told BBC’s Newsnight programme that Alister Jack, the secretary of state for Scotland, “is a much more substantial and important figure in this”.
Andrew Percy, a Tory MP, hit back at Rees-Mogg, saying: “As someone who apparently loves the Union, his personal attack on Douglas . . . is a gift to the petty nationalists in the SNP who want to break this country up.”
Ross has signalled his intention to submit a letter to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson. Fifty-four such letters would trigger a vote.
“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,” Ross said.
Caroline Nokes, one of the few English Tory MPs to have publicly called for Johnson to resign, warned that the prime minister was “damaging the entire Conservative brand”.
She told ITV’s Robert Peston: “Regretfully, he looks like a liability. And I think he either goes now, or he goes in three years’ time at a general election.”
The majority of cabinet ministers including Michael Gove, Nadine Dorries and Sajid Javid have all publicly rallied behind Johnson following his apology.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak released a tepid tweet almost eight hours after Johnson’s statement in the House of Commons offering only halfhearted support.
Sunak, a potential leadership rival, travelled more than 200 miles on a “long planned” trip to north Devon on Wednesday and said: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her inquiry.”
Foreign secretary Liz Truss, another potential leadership contender, said she stood behind Johnson “100 per cent”.
Ministers have called for patience while Gray, a senior civil servant investigating a series of gatherings across Whitehall that allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions, completes her report.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told the BBC on Thursday: “You’ve got to let these investigations get to the full details and the full facts.”
Downing Street, meanwhile, announced that Johnson had been forced to pull out of a planned visit to Lancashire “due to a family member testing positive for coronavirus”.
“He will follow the guidance for vaccinated close contacts, including daily testing and limiting contact with others”, a spokesperson said.
In a further blow to Johnson’s authority, a poll for The Times by YouGov has given Labour a 10-point lead on the Tories.
The poll was conducted before Johnson’s apology at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday but gives Labour its biggest lead since December 2013.
In a tense exchange with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson acknowledged that “millions of people across this country” had made “extraordinary sacrifices” in lockdown.
“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.
Johnson tried to classify the event in question as a work gathering. “When I went into that garden . . . 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.”