Boris Johnson has come under intense pressure from senior Conservatives to confess publicly that he attended a rule-breaking garden party in Downing Street, with the Scottish Tory leader suggesting the Prime Minister should resign if he broke Covid rules.
A string of Conservative MPs openly expressed anger and humiliation over the “bring your own drink” gathering for up to 40 people on May 20, 2020 after it emerged in a leaked email. Others called on him to apologize on Wednesday in hopes of quelling the rising anger.
Johnson has declined to say whether he and his then-fiance, Carrie Symonds, attended the event. About 100 Downing Street employees were invited by Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s chief private secretary, to “make the most of the beautiful weather”.
Former Secretary of State Johnny Mercer described the revelations as “humiliating”, while the MP for Keighley, Robbie Moore, said: “Martin Reynolds’ email infuriates me. I have no idea what these people were thinking.”
Caroline Nokes, another former government minister, said: “I have no words to adequately express how angry I am at the ‘don’t do what I do, do what I say’ attitude that seems to prevail in Downing Street. ” Mark Harper, the chairman of the influential Covid Recovery Group, said: “These are serious allegations. The Prime Minister will be in the House of Commons [on Wednesday] … and I await his explanation with interest.”
Privately, more Tory MPs said they were waiting for Johnson’s explanations on the prime minister’s questions. “He needs to confess, take personal responsibility and apologize – not one of these sham apologies, but a decent apology,” said one of them.
Another said: “It’s so disgusting. I just feel like I’ve been lied to. I just think the whole operation is an obligation.” They added that Tory MPs exchanged angry messages on WhatsApp about how reluctant they are to spend political capital defending Johnson.
A third former minister warned: “None of this is irreparable yet, but this is turning it up a notch: we are rising from repairable to irreparable.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, told STV he was “furious” that while other Britons were not allowed to see dying or hospitalized relatives, “people in 10 Downing Street were enjoying the sun from the back of No 10 and drinking the drink”.
Ross said he could no longer support the prime minister if it turned out that he had attended the event and subsequently did not resign. “I would in no way support the Prime Minister if he broke the law and attended that party,” he said.
Ross suggested the controversy might prompt more Conservative MPs to send letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, in a concerted effort to provoke a vote of no confidence. “These are discussions that I know those colleagues in Westminster will have,” he said.
If Brady receives 54 such letters, a vote of no confidence is set in motion — and if Johnson were to lose that vote, a leadership contest would be launched in which he would not be allowed to stand.
Senior Conservatives said the vote in the House of Commons tea room was “funeral” on Tuesday, with MPs debating who would replace Johnson. An MP said Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, could be prime minister within months. “It is no longer a question of whether the Prime Minister will go, it is when,” said the MP.
It is alleged that Reynolds attended another alcohol-fueled gathering for No. 10 staff. The Daily Telegraph reported that he was one of the assistants at Johnson’s private office that held on December 18 – the same night as a controversial news agency party – to kept drinking late.
A No. 10 spokesperson said of the event reportedly attended by Reynolds: “A number of private office employees worked late into the evening on the Covid response.”
Prof Stephen Reicher, of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviors, which advises the government, warned that the ongoing feud over parties risked undermining key public health guidelines.
“It’s a huge distraction. With all its attention for parties, the government cannot do its job to communicate clearly about the pandemic and what needs to be done about it. Second, it polarizes and politicizes the pandemic debate, undermining the sense of community that is critical in securing compliance,” he said.
Tory’s latest response was sparked by a leaked email from Reynolds inviting colleagues over for “socially dissociated drinks” after “an incredibly busy period”. At the time, two people from different households – but no more – were allowed to meet outside in a public place from 2 meters away, under England’s pandemic rules.
Secretary of State Michael Ellis was dispatched from Downing Street on Tuesday to parry MPs questions during an angry and emotional session in the House of Commons. DUP MP Jim Shannon burst into tears when he said his mother-in-law had died alone during the lockdown, urging the government to ensure “full and full disclosure” of what happened.
Ellis apologized “for the unrest these allegations have caused”. He confirmed that an inquiry by a senior official, Sue Gray, would consider the Downing Street meetings on 15-20 May 2020 and the following Christmas holidays, but ignored further questions.
The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, is expected to accuse the prime minister of misleading parliament about the rallies when he faces the emergency room on Wednesday.
When news broke of a No. 10 Christmas party in 2020, Johnson told MPs: “All guidelines were fully followed.” A few days later, when a video appeared of his former press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about a party, he said he was nauseous and furious.
Ellis told MPs that Gray’s report would “establish the facts, and if misconduct is found appropriate disciplinary action will be taken”. Asked if Johnson would resign if he was found to have broken the law, Ellis said the prime minister “was okay” and “maintains people’s trust in this country”.
Senior Tory MPs called on Johnson to carry out a radical shakeup of machine No. 10 in the wake of last month’s shocking defeat in the North Shropshire by-election, but no changes have been announced so far.
A quick poll by pollsters Savanta ComRes found that two-thirds of the public think Johnson should step down after the latest revelations. Even among conservative voters, it was 42%.
A Johnson loyalist said, “It would be an honor and a statesman to at least say, ‘Look, I screwed up.’ He could do something about this. And the problem is that he keeps leaving us high and dry.” They added: “He’s doing really well.”