Boris Johnson: Senior Tories urge PM to quit after party apology

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Media caption,
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the prime minister's position was "no longer tenable"

Boris Johnson is facing calls from senior Tories to resign after he admitted attending a drinks party during lockdown.

The prime minister apologised for the way he handled the event in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 and said he understood the public's "rage" over it.

Cabinet members including deputy PM Dominic Raab rallied round Mr Johnson.

But Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and MPs William Wragg, Caroline Nokes and Roger urged him to go.

Mr Ross, an MP and a Member of the Scottish Parliament, said he had had a "difficult conversation" with Mr Johnson after he apologised on Wednesday in the House of Commons.

He said he would write to the 1922 Committee, which organises Conservative leadership contests, to register his lack of confidence in the prime minister.

"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," Mr Ross said.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said those calling for Mr Johnson were "people who are always unhappy" and dismissed Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross as "quite a lightweight figure".

Conservative MP Andrew Percy criticised Mr 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."

Media caption,
Jacob Rees-Mogg: "Douglas Ross has always been quite a lightweight"

A minimum of 54 Conservative MPs must send letters to the committee in order to trigger a leadership challenge.

The drinks gathering, held on 20 May 2020 and described in the invitation as "socially distanced", was attended by around 30 people, who were invited to bring their own alcohol. Food, including sausage rolls and crisps, was reportedly laid out on trestle tables,

Mr Johnson admitted at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday that he had joined colleagues at the event for around 25 minutes to "thank groups of staff" for their hard work during the pandemic, but had "believed implicitly that this was a work event".

He added: "With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognised that - even if it could have been said technically to fall within the guidance - there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way."

Downing Street party row

Ministers have urged MPs to wait for the outcome of an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray into alleged Covid-rule breaking at Downing Street parties, which is expected be published next week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told BBC Breakfast: "You've got to let these investigations get to the full details and the full facts."

He said the prime minister recognised the "frustration, anger and upset" about what people perceived to be happening at Downing Street, adding he "absolutely" supported his leadership.

Media caption,
Watch: Hannah Brady, who lost her father Shaun to Covid in May 2020, says PM's party apology is insincere

But Mr Wragg, a backbench MP who chairs an influential select committee, called the prime minister's position "untenable".

"I don't think it should be left to the findings of a civil servant to determine the future of the prime minister and indeed who governs this country," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

And fellow Tory Caroline Nokes, who chairs another Commons committee, said the prime minister should resign now as he was "damaging the entire Conservative brand".

The former minister, who has previously been critical of Mr Johnson's leadership, 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."

What next for Boris Johnson?

The prime minister's admission and apology in the Commons likely bought him a little time.

A pause until the official inquiry into what parties did or didn't take place in Downing Street is published, in perhaps a week or so.

But for many on his own side, Boris Johnson has already lost the benefit of the doubt.

Growing numbers of his own MPs want him out, discussing frantically how and when his exit could take place.

At Prime Minister's Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson's explanation for his attendance at the drinks gathering was "so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public" and he called on Mr Johnson "to do the decent thing and resign".

The SNP's leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, called on Tory MPs to force the prime minister out.

And Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, who has asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate Mr Johnson's attendance at the drinks, said he had to go.

Media caption,
Watch Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis give his support to Boris Johnson over his No 10 party apology

The prime minister's statement was met with a mixed reaction from Conservative MPs, with Dan Poulter saying it was "not much consolation" for those who had worked on the frontline in the NHS.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak - both tipped as potential successors to Mr Johnson as leader - tweeted their support on Wednesday evening.

Ms Truss said she stood behind the prime minister "100%", while Mr Sunak said Mr Johnson had been "right to apologise", adding that he supported the PM's call for "patience" while Ms Gray completed her investigation.

A poll for The Times by YouGov, carried out before Mr Johnson's apology at Prime Minister's Questions, gave Labour at a 10-point lead over the Conservatives - the party's biggest lead since December 2013.

The government has faced intense pressure over events held in an around Downing Street.

Boris Johnson announced a plan to take the “first careful steps" out of the lockdown that began in March 2020. But he said people should continue to "obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them”.

Legal restrictions at the time said you could not leave your house without a reasonable excuse and government guidance was that you could meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor setting while exercising.

A photo from May 2020 showed the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden. When asked about it, Boris Johnson said, “those people were at work talking about work”.

About 100 people were invited by email to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on behalf of the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.

Witnesses told the BBC the PM and his wife were among about 30 people who attended.

Boris Johnson has confirmed he attended the event, saying he was there for 25 minutes and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.

A gathering took place in the Cabinet Office to mark the departure of a No 10 private secretary.

On Boris Johnson’s birthday, up to 30 people gathered in the Cabinet Room at No 10 to present the prime minister with a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday, according to a report by ITV News.

No 10 said staff had “gathered briefly" to "wish the prime minister a happy birthday", adding that he had been there "for less than 10 minutes”.

Rules at the time banned most indoor gatherings involving more than two people.

Boris Johnson announced plans for a “significant return to normality" in England by Christmas "through targeted, local action” instead of national lockdowns.

But he added that the timetable relied on “every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly”.

With cases of coronavirus rising again, the prime minister told people in England that “we are once again asking you to stay at home” as a new national lockdown began.

He said people should only leave their homes “for work if you can’t work from home, for education, and for essential activities and emergencies”. Indoor gatherings with other households were banned, unless they were for work purposes.

Sources told the BBC that Downing Street staff members attended a gathering with Carrie Johnson in the flat where she and the prime minister live. A spokesman for Mrs Johnson denies the party took place.

A leaving event was held for No 10 aide, Cleo Watson, where people were drinking, and Mr Johnson made a speech, according to sources.

The second national lockdown ended after four weeks but Boris Johnson replaced those restrictions with “tough tiers to keep this virus down”.

London was placed in tier two, which banned two or more people from different households from meeting indoors, unless “reasonably necessary” for work purposes.

The Department for Education has confirmed it had an office gathering to thank staff for their work during the pandemic. It says drinks and snacks were brought by those who attended and no outside guests or support staff were invited.

The Conservative Party has admitted that an “unauthorised gathering” took place at its HQ in Westminster. It was held by the team of the party's London-mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, who has since stepped down as chair of the London Assembly police and crime committee. The Metropolitan Police is to speak to two people who attended the party.

The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’
Image caption The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’ Image copyright by Daily Mirror

Multiple sources have told the BBC there was a Christmas quiz for No 10 staff last year. A photo - published by the Sunday Mirror - showed Boris Johnson taking part and sitting between two colleagues in No 10. Mr Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher
Image caption Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher Image copyright by Sunday Mirror

London moved into the highest tier of restrictions and Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, said it was important “everyone is cautious” ahead of the festive period.

The Department for Transport apologised after confirming reports of a party in its offices that day, calling it “inappropriate" and an "error of judgment” by staff.

A leaving party was held at the Cabinet Office for the outgoing head of the civil service Covid taskforce - the team responsible for drawing up coronavirus restrictions.

Kate Josephs, now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, apologised for the event, saying she was “truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result”.

Downing Street originally denied a report by the Daily Mirror that a party took place in Downing Street.

However, a video obtained by ITV News showed the prime minister's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton, joking about reports of an event, saying: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

A gathering was held in No 10 Downing Street to mark the departure of two private secretaries.

Lockdown restrictions were eased in England, with pubs and restaurants allowed to reopen with outdoor service only.

However, working from home continued to be recommended and socialising indoors with people from other households was not allowed. Meeting others outdoors was limited to groups of six people or two households.

Two parties were held by Downing Street staff at No 10, the night before Prince Philip's funeral.

One of the events was a leaving party for the PM's then director of communications James Slack, who has apologised for the event and acknowledged it “should not have happened at the time that it did”.

Boris Johnson was not at either party.