Boris Johnson will still be able to win the next general election for the Conservative Party, a cabinet minister has said, amid open speculation about his political future.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis backed the PM to lead his party into the next election, saying he “rightly” apologised in the Commons yesterday for a Downing Street garden drinks party held on 20 May 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
But asked if Mr Johnson can continue as prime minister if he is found to have misled parliament by saying he did not break coronavirus rules, a matter which is in theory a resigning issue, Mr Lewis dodged the question,
“That is making a pre-judgement on what the report will find,” he told Kay Burley.
PM ‘sorry’ but says drinks gathering was ‘work event’
Four of Mr Johnson’s own Conservative backbench MPs have explicitly called for him to resign, saying his position is now “untenable” – leading to questions of whether he could be forced out of Number 10 by his own party.
At PMQs on Wednesday, the PM confessed to attending the Downing Street “bring your own booze” event.
He admitted he went into the Number 10 garden “just after 6pm on 20 May 2020 to thank groups of staff” before going back into his office “25 minutes later”.
Mr Johnson said he had “learned enough” about multiple claims of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street “to know there were things we simply did not get right” and acknowledged the public “rage” about the event.
But, Mr Johnson said, he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.
“With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside,” he added. “I should have found some other way to thank them.”
Tory MPs say PM’s position is ‘untenable’
The gathering is understood to have been attended by around 40 people.
The prime minister offered his “heartfelt apologies”, but Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to “do the decent thing and resign”, claiming his position is “no longer tenable”.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has also demanded the prime minister’s resignation over the Downing Street drinks party row.
“I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in this position now, where I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives,” Mr Ross said.
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, dismissed Mr Ross’s call for the prime minister to resign, telling LBC: “I don’t think Douglas Ross is a big figure.”
Fellow Tory MP William Wragg, the chair of the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, also called for his party’s leader to go, saying he feared the “partygate” row was “simply going to be a continuing distraction to the good governance of the country”.
Sir Roger Gale and former minister Caroline Nokes are the other two Conservative MPs who have so far urged Mr Johnson to quit after his apology failed to quell the anger over the May 2020 gathering.
If 53 other Tory MPs also submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs Sir Graham Brady, then Mr Johnson will be subject to a confidence vote.
PM ‘right person to be prime minister’
But speaking to Sky News on Thursday morning, Mr Lewis said he believes “the prime minister is the right person to be prime minister”.
“I think we will be able to go forward and win a general election,” the Northern Ireland secretary told Kay Burley.
“We have got work to do. We have got to deliver on exactly on what the prime minister set up, which is some of the biggest important reforms dealing with issues the country would have liked to have dealt with years ago, like health and social care, issues in Northern Ireland that haven’t been dealt with in decades.
“This is somebody who wants to deal with that and do it in a way that delivers for everybody in the UK, and that is why I think he will win the next election.”
But the calls for him to resign from within his own Conservative Party will worry Mr Johnson.
Mark Harper, a former Tory chief whip, said it would be “up to every Conservative MP to consider what action needs to be taken” once a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, looking into the “partygate” row is published.
Another Conservative backbencher, Simon Hoare, was asked by Sky News whether the prime minister was now safe after his Commons apology.
“I don’t know,” he replied, adding that Mr Johnson had reached “half-time” before Ms Gray’s “full-time report”.
PM urges MPs to wait for party investigation report
In his statement at the beginning of PMQs, Mr Johnson made a plea for MPs to allow Ms Gray to complete her inquiry into multiple allegations of lockdown breaches in Downing Street “so that the full path can be established”.
He vowed to make a further statement to MPs once Ms Gray’s work was complete.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has written to Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick to call on her to launch a full police investigation into the 20 May event.
Meanwhile, shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to Mr Johnson asking for “full details of parties” which cabinet ministers may have attended during lockdown.
Ms Nandy said the British public “deserve to know the full extent of it”.
Chancellor noticeably quiet
Allies of the prime minister attempted to mount a pushback on Wednesday afternoon, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak – considered by some to be the most likely to replace Mr Johnson in Number 10, did not post on Twitter until after 8pm that evening.
“I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanForJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation. The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry,” he wrote.
Number 10 said after PMQs that Mr Johnson had not seen an email invitation to the drinks gathering on 20 May 2020, which is revealed to have been sent by the prime minister’s key aide Martin Reynolds to, reportedly, more than 100 members of Downing Street staff.
At the time, Britons had only recently been allowed to meet with one person from another household outside as long as they remained two metres apart.
Mixing with multiple households was still banned.
Mr Johnson’s press secretary declined to explain what was the basis for the prime minister’s claim that the 20 May gathering may “technically” have fallen within COVID guidance at the time.
Number 10 also refused to say whether Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie attended the event, whether the prime minister noticed food and drink there, or if he complied with the request to bring a bottle.