Boris Johnson suffered the toughest day of his premiership on Wednesday when leaders of the Scottish Conservative party and some English Tories called for him to quit after he admitted attending a Number 10 “bring your own booze” party during lockdown.
The prime minister tried to buy some time with a partial apology, saying that he thought the evening gathering in May 2020 was a “work event” But it failed to stem the tide of anger among some Tory MPs.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said the public thought he had been “lying through his teeth”, while many Conservative MPs said it was only a matter of timing before the prime minister faced a leadership challenge.
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, called for Johnson to quit and was quickly supported by his predecessor Baroness Ruth Davidson and more than half the Tories in the Scottish Parliament.
A handful of English Tories — including veteran MP Sir Roger Gale and William Wragg, chair of the public administration select committee — also called for Johnson to quit. Wragg said colleagues were “frankly worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible”.
Other Tory MPs privately said Johnson had become a liability and that letters were being submitted to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson: 54 such letters would trigger a vote.
As Johnson faced his critics in the Commons, Rishi Sunak, a potential leadership rival, travelled more than 200 miles on a “long planned” trip to North Devon and declined media interviews.
In a tense exchange with Starmer in the House of Commons, 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 as a work gathering rather than a social one. “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.”
The prime minister added that Sue Gray, a senior civil servant investigating a series of gatherings across Whitehall that allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions, should be “allowed to complete her inquiry into that day”.
Gray is not expected to conclude her investigations until next week “at the earliest”, according to one Whitehall official. Her report is unlikely to apportion direct blame, but will focus on a “drinking culture” according to those with knowledge of her work.
“It won’t just pose questions for special advisers and politicos to answer, there will be some commentary of office culture, civil service culture, and how this was allowed to happen,” one government insider said. Another said: “There aren’t going to be any winners out of this.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, suggested civil servants may bear the brunt of the criticism in Gray’s report.
One Tory strategist said, “an important corner has been turned, but it’s going to be a difficult few days.” But another party official said: “MPs may decide better the devil you know in the end. But my instinct is he’s done.”
Party grandees said that the lack of an obvious replacement was shoring up Johnson’s position. “None of the alternatives are particularly palatable. For now, that’s his best hope,” one former cabinet minister said.