Downing Street party: Has Boris Johnson's apology won over the Conservatives?

By Jennifer Scott
Political reporter, BBC News

Published
Media caption,
"I offer my heartfelt apologies" - watch Boris Johnson admit to attending the No 10 party in May 2020

Boris Johnson offered a "heartfelt" apology for attending drinks in the Downing Street gardens during lockdown in 2020 - something he said he thought was a work event.

But will that apology and explanation wash with Conservative MPs?

Many of his cabinet colleagues rallied in support of the PM in the hours following the statement.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Health Secretary Sajid Javid praised him on Twitter for offering an apology, while Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove faced the 1922 committee of backbench MPs to remind them of Mr Johnson's plus points.

But earlier in the day, some others in the party who chose to speak publicly offered conditional support for their leader in his hour of need.

Minister Rachel Maclean said the PM's statement showed he "recognised the anger and sense of injustice" of the public, which were feelings she shared.

"I also feel the same, as anybody would," she told BBC Two's Politics Live programme. "I was following the rules. I couldn't see my own children. My own mother was in a nursing home [and] I couldn't see her."

But Ms Maclean said the PM shouldn't resign, and that any conclusions - or punishments - needed to be decided by the inquiry into Westminster lockdown parties, led by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

Downing Street party row

Senior Tory Christopher Chope told the same programme he had "never heard such an abject apology" during his long years in Parliament, and he believed it was "genuinely sincere".

He said: "I think the prime minister showed contrition and had realised he had done the wrong thing in not intervening at the time.

"So, I think when someone makes an apology like that, then reasonable people accept the apology."

Sir Christopher also added the "caveat" implied by Ms Maclean, saying the party could revisit the issue of the prime minister's future depending on the outcome of Ms Gray's inquiry.

But, he said, "in the short-term", the statement was "a monumental relief... because we didn't think he'd be able to carry on if he didn't answer the basic question of if he was there".

'Wait and see'

That caveat seemed to be a running theme for those Tories speaking after Mr Johnson's Commons appearance.

Stephen Hammond told BBC Radio 4's World at One that he was pleased to hear "an apology and some transparency" from the prime minister, saying it was "important he cleared up some of the speculation about his attendance".

He said he would "take his word" that the PM thought the gathering was a work event.

But he said others would find it "surprising", adding: "Many of my constituents quite rightly will be sitting here today feeling they've had a bit of an apology, but still feeling very let down.

"And like a number of people, I am still very very concerned that people in Downing Street thought it was acceptable to break the rules.

"But I think the prime minister has at least earned the right for us to wait and see what Sue Gray says."

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Others in the Tory ranks were less kind about the PM's performance.

In fact, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross went as far as calling for his resignation - actually phoning Mr Johnson to tell him his position was untenable.

The chair of the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg, echoed his call, telling BBC Radio 4's PM that Tory MPs were "frankly worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible", and that "for their sakes" he should resign.

And Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi - a long standing critic of Mr Johnson - said any minister, MP or member of staff at any Downing Street party must resign, "no ifs no buts".

She added: "The rule of law is a fundamental value - the glue that hold us together as a nation. Once that is trashed by those in power the very essence of our democracy is at stake."

While welcoming the apology, Tory MP Dan Poulter - who also works as a doctor - said it was "not much consolation to those of us who cared for patients on the frontline of the NHS and saw them die of Covid".

He said if the PM was "found to have actively misled Parliament, or if he faces criminal sanction (or both), then his position would be untenable".

'He's run out of Teflon'

Sir Roger Gale, who has already written a letter to the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers - the method for MPs to call for a leadership challenge - said that, politically speaking, "the prime minister is a dead man walking".

He told World at One that Mr Johnson had "misled the House" in December when claiming allegations of Covid rule-breaking parties were unfounded - breaking the ministerial code - and that he had left his MPs in "an impossible situation".

And there were MPs happy to make their critical views known to the BBC privately, with a senior Tory source saying the PM "had lost what made him so successful with his party".

Others said his performance at PMQs was "weak" and "terrible", while another said: "It's growing and growing. He'll have to go."

One Conservative MP told Nick Watt, the political editor at Newsnight, that: "The PM's statement isn't enough. It won't do the trick.

"He can usually find a small piece of Teflon to help him slip away from trouble. But I think he has finally run out of Teflon."

Actions also sometimes speak louder then words too.

During the PM's stint at the dispatch box, the Conservative MPs sat behind his were subdued, avoiding the traditional cheers of support.

And they stuck firmly to questions about local projects, like bus routes, and even washing machines.

But remember, between the calls for Mr Johnson to quit and others offering tentative support, the majority of the 360 Tory MPs in Parliament are keeping quiet and could fall into either camp.

'Pathetic spectacle'

The response to Mr Johnson from the opposition was perhaps unsurprising, with no fewer than eight MPs using PMQs to call for his resignation.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the prime minister "a pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road", the SNP's Westminster leader Ian Blackford said he had "betrayed the nation's trust", and Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey called it a "shameful attempt" at an apology.

Other MPs joined the vocal outcry, with Green MP Caroline Lucas accusing Mr Johnson of only saying sorry to "save his skin", while Labour's Jess Philips said: "He's not sorry, he's sorry he got caught."

But it is the Conservative Party that will decide Mr Johnson's future, and the conclusions of those MPs which will seal his fate.