Boris Johnson is facing an intensifying Conservative mutiny against his leadership, as a “sulphurous” mood engulfed the party over his attendance at a lockdown-breaking “bring your own booze” drinks event in Downing Street.
Some Tory MPs claimed the row, which has called into question Johnson’s judgment and honesty, was potentially terminal for his premiership; two polls found the majority of the public thought he should resign.
Johnson is under pressure from senior Tories to admit he attended the drinks party in the Number 10 garden on May 20, 2020 — as confirmed by numerous witnesses — in defiance of England’s lockdown rules.
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “If he has breached his own guidance, if he has not been truthful, then that is an extremely important issue.” He told Sky News that if Johnson had misled parliament “then he must resign”.
The prime minister’s performance at question time in the House of Commons on Wednesday is seen by Tory MPs as a crucial moment and many Tory MPs want him to apologise.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, told the prime minister on Tuesday: “Not only did you know about the parties in Downing Street, you attended them. Stop lying to the British public. It’s time to come clean.”
One Conservative MP said the prime minister’s claims last month that he was unaware of allegedly illicit parties in Downing Street now seemed “like lies”. The MP added: “The mood is sulphurous. This is potentially terminal.”
Even Johnson’s previous supporters said a “tipping point” had been reached. One MP said letters of no confidence were being handed to Graham Brady, chair of the Tory backbench 1922 committee. A government member said: “We can’t go on like this.”
A total of 54 letters — 15 per cent of Tory MPs — would trigger a no-confidence vote. Most Tory MPs want to wait until local elections on May 5 before taking a view on Johnson’s future, but some believe the reckoning could now come sooner.
John Caudwell, the Phones4U founder and leading Tory donor said: “Sort it out, Boris, or step aside and let someone else sort it out so that the Tories aren’t wiped out at the next election.”
Conservative MPs had hoped the start of a new year would draw a line under Johnson’s political problems; instead he is struggling to fight off allegations about parties that took place during Covid lockdowns in 2020.
Downing Street has declined to comment about the May 2020 party — revealed by Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings — insisting it was subject to an continuing review by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant. But the wall of silence from Number 10 has infuriated Tory MPs.
Johnson declined to answer an urgent question in the Commons on Tuesday on the May 2020 party, despatching paymaster general Michael Ellis to field questions in his place.
Ominously for Johnson, no minister turned up to support him and the Tory benches were largely empty. Johnny Mercer, a former minister, tweeted: “I’m sorry. It’s humiliating, and does not reflect the majority of my colleagues who *at least try* and lead by example.”
The Metropolitan Police is co-operating with the Cabinet Office about a possible criminal investigation into the party, which took place when outside meetings were only allowed with one person from another household.
The party was organised by Martin Reynolds, the head of Johnson’s office, who invited around 100 Downing Street staff to “make the most of the lovely weather” by attending the party, asking them to “bring your own booze”.
“There’s amazement that Number 10 was so stupid that it allowed this to happen,” said one minister. Reynolds could face the axe along with other close aides to the prime minister, but many MPs believe the buck stops with Johnson.
Meanwhile, a snap poll from Savanta ComRes found 66 per cent of UK adults thought the prime minister should step down; that figure was 42 per cent for Tory voters. A second poll by YouGov found that 56 per cent of people thought Johnson should quit.