Well, that’s it from a busy day in Westminster (on this live blog, at least). One thing that is certain is this latest Tory scandal is set to run and run, so do join us again tomorrow for what I am sure will be another intriguing day as Boris Johnson’s own MPs continue to turn the screw on the prime minister.
Goodnight from me, Tom Ambrose. Thanks for following along.
For now, here is a round-up of the day’s main headlines:
- Boris Johnson’s premiership was hanging in the balance as Conservative MPs began openly calling for his resignation after he admitted attending a garden party in lockdown, claiming he thought it was a “work event”. In the aftermath of Johnson’s statement, one of the Conservatives’ most senior backbenchers, William Wragg, and Douglas Ross, the leader of the party in Scotland, publicly called for Johnson to resign, saying his position had become untenable.
- The Conservative MP William Wragg, chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee and a vice chair of the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee executive, has joined those saying Boris Johnson should quit.
- Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has “regretfully” called for Boris Johnson to quit as prime minister after he admitted attending a rule-breaking party in the garden of 10 Downing Street.
- A host of Scottish Conservative MSPs in Holyrood have backed Douglas Ross’s call for Boris Johnson to quit as leader and prime minister, a clear indicator the Scottish Tories believe his continued premiership will be disastrous for their attempts to prevent Scottish independence.
- Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, has said that Douglas Ross, the current one, was right to call for Boris Johnson’s resignation.
- Dominic Cummings, the former Boris Johnson adviser who first revealed last week that there was a party in No 10 on 20 May 2020, says Johnson’s claim that it was a work event, and technically within the rules, is rubbish.
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said the Prime Minister was “right to apologise”, and said he supports Boris Johnson’s “request for patience” as Sue Gray conducts her investigation.
- Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy PM, told BBC News that Boris Johnson had given a “very clear account” of the events of 20 May 2020.
- Lord Falconer, the Labour former lord chancellor, told Radio 4’s the World at One that Boris Johnson should be fined, or charged, because he admitted at PMQs that he attended an event that broke the law.
- On the streets of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where Boris Johnson has been MP since 2015, people expressed “disappointment” and called for the prime minister to face a police investigation and penalties for breaking lockdown rules.
- The UK has recorded 129,587 new Covid cases, and 398 further deaths, the government’s coronavirus dashboard says. For the second day in a row deaths are at the highest level since February, when 442 deaths were recorded on 24th. Yesterday the daily recorded total was 379.
- An NHS doctor has described Boris Johnson’s apology as “insulting”, as she recalled how she was sweating while working in full PPE around the same time as the event took place. Dr Saleyha Ahsan, who lost her father to Covid in the pandemic, said she believes the prime minister’s situation is untenable.
Senior Tories call on Boris Johnson to resign after No 10 party admission
Boris Johnson’s premiership was hanging in the balance as Conservative MPs began openly calling for his resignation after he admitted attending a garden party in lockdown, claiming he thought it was a “work event”.
Johnson delivered a carefully worded apology for attending the alcohol-fuelled gathering of up to 40 officials in May 2020, which was described in an email invitation as “socially distanced drinks” to enjoy the warm weather.
Some cabinet ministers later tweeted their qualified support for the prime minister – though the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was noticeable by his silence and absence from the frontbench as Johnson offered his account during prime minister’s questions.
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said Johnson had been “right to personally apologise” because people were “hurt and angry at what happened”. She said it was now right to await the findings of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry into Downing Street gatherings. The findings could come as soon as the end of next week but more likely the week after, a cabinet source suggested.
One former minister was even less convinced, saying Johnson “didn’t apologise for what he did but for things that may or may not have happened which he officially knows nothing about until Sue Gray tells him about it”. Another MP said: “I’ve not seen such a half-arsed apology since my child apologised for spilling all the milk.”
In the aftermath of Johnson’s statement, one of the Conservatives’ most senior backbenchers, William Wragg, and Douglas Ross, the leader of the party in Scotland, publicly called for Johnson to resign, saying his position had become untenable.
Some MPs were openly discussing sending letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 committee, Graham Brady, demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson. Brady will not reveal how many he has received until the threshold of 54 is reached but one former minister suggested that based on conversations with colleagues, the number may currently be about 25.
Rishi Sunak says he 'supports' Boris Johnson in tweet
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said the Prime Minister was “right to apologise”, and said he supports Boris Johnson’s “request for patience” as Sue Gray conducts her investigation.
In a tweet, Mr Sunak said: “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 inquiry.”
Boris Johnson’s half-apology on Wednesday, for accidentally attending a party work event in his own garden, was aimed at buying him some time. But it is becoming increasingly clear that his party is running out of patience.
Some backbenchers welcomed Johnson’s belated acknowledgement that he should have broken up the booze-fuelled gathering attended by up to 40 staff in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, and suggested he had won himself the right to await Sue Gray’s findings.
As one MP put it: “We want the Sue Gray report – it’s only the decent thing to let her actually do it. We shouldn’t pull the trigger on the guilty verdict until we’ve actually seen the report.”
A junior minister agreed, saying Johnson had effectively “bet the farm” on the Gray report. “He’s done enough to win himself another week or two. If Gray doesn’t directly pin the blame on him, it will be framed by No 10 as exoneration,” they said.
However, many others, publicly and privately, warned that even before Gray sets out the details of lockdown social events in black and white, Johnson’s authority is draining away.
They must now decide whether the damage being done to the Conservative brand is so great that forcing a destabilising no confidence vote now is preferable to allowing him to continue in office.
Cabinet ministers have rallied behind the prime minister in an attempt to shore up Boris Johnson’s support - with one notable exception yet to come out to back him.
Senior Conservatives flooded broadcast studios and social media with praise for the PM.
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, was the first out of the blocks to back her boss, saying an inquiry led by senior official Sue Gray must be allowed to go ahead.
Dorries wrote on Twitter that the “PM was right to personally apologise earlier.
“People are hurt and angry at what happened and he has taken full responsibility for that. The inquiry should now be allowed to its work and establish the full facts of what happened”.
Responding to her message, the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove said: “Nadine is right.”
And the former leadership hopeful also backed up the PM at the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, where he is reported to have said Mr Johnson “gets the big calls right” and urged colleagues not to be “flaky”.
Others who have offered their backing to Johnson include the deputy prime minister and justice secretary, Dominic Raab; the home secretary, Priti Patel; the transport secretary, Grant Shapps; the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid.
However, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had yet to publicly back Johnson on Wednesday evening. Sunak, viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader, was notably absent on a visit to Devon earlier in the day.
With MPs and the leader of the opposition calling for Boris Johnson to resign, speculation about who may take over is rife.
Names being discussed include Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Jeremy Hunt.
My colleague Heather Stewart has considered some of the potential runners and riders should the prime minister resign or be forced out.
On the streets of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where Boris Johnson has been MP since 2015, people expressed “disappointment” and called for the prime minister to face a police investigation and penalties for breaking lockdown rules. But should he quit? Not a chance.
While most voters who spoke to the Guardian in the west London constituency expressed frustration and anger with actions they perceived as unfair, some regular Conservative voters said they would remain loyal to the prime minister, and others were sceptical about the alternatives.
As the prime minister finally apologises (sort of) for a lockdown party at Downing Street, Heather Stewart and Gaby Hinsliff look what the future holds for Boris Johnson. Plus, Peter Walker, Larry Elliott and Miatta Fahnbulleh discuss the impending cost of living crisis.
Finally we got some kind of explanation from the prime minister for his boozy parties at Downing Street. It turns out that Boris Johnson wants us to believe that Boris Johnson thinks that Boris Johnson is catatonically stupid. And that the British public are equally half-witted enough to believe any old lies he happens to come up with. There’s just one problem with this. Boris may be dim, but he’s not that dim. And the rest of us have long since learned to see through his mendacity.
This was the prime minister’s questions at which Johnson finally ran out of road. An outright denial that he had been at the party on 20 May 2020 would no longer keep him out of trouble as there was anecdotal evidence he was there. So all that was left to him was to come up with the best possible excuse and hope it would buy off a few of the more gullible Tory MPs. Only the best possible excuse turned out to be a crock of total shit.
Read the full politics sketch below.
It is looking as though those Tories who are part of Boris Johnson’s inner circle are doing their utmost to rally the troops, as the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, joined Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg in calling for Tory MPs to stand by the prime minister.
Sky News’s deputy political editor, Sam Coates, has tweeted another screenshot of the now infamous Tory MP WhatsApp group. Safe in the knowledge that every contribution is to be shared with the media, it’s a wonder they don’t simply cut out the middle man and have these carefully worded exchanges direct on Twitter.
But, anyway, Kwarteng echoed his colleagues in saying they need to let the investigation continue, before reeling off a list of Conservative priorities ahead of the next election - which he predicted will take place in two years.
I know a lot going on. PM absolutely right to apologise and we need to let the investigation complete its work.
But we have a really important job to do in the next two years before GE.
Need to keep the economy open, £billions going into levelling up, new nuclear, Brexit opportunities to grasp and cutting burdens facing business. Top priorities !!
An NHS doctor has described Boris Johnson’s apology as “insulting”, as she recalled how she was sweating while working in full PPE around the same time as the event took place.
Dr Saleyha Ahsan, who lost her father to Covid in the pandemic, said she believes the prime minister’s situation is untenable. The doctor, who is currently on a clinical break and doing a PhD at Cambridge, was working at a hospital in Bangor in Wales in the early part of the Covid crisis, PA Media reported.
Dr Ahsan said for anyone to suggest that people in government were “working so super hard that they absolutely needed to go and have a bit of time out and a bit of a group ‘bring your own bottle’ gathering in the private gardens of 10 Downing Street is actually so super insulting”.
No one has worked harder than frontline NHS workers. No one, absolutely no-one and we didn’t do that.
She said hearing of “yet another wrongdoing, another slip-up” by those at the top of government is “traumatising”, saying healthcare workers “collectively feel insulted”. She said:
What it does, it reminds us of what we were doing at that time. And what was I doing in May 2020? I was dressed in PPE. Yeah, the weather was warm. I was sweating. Trying not to pass out every time I went into the contamination room to see a patient who had Covid in our full PPE. We weren’t going out in the evenings to gather as colleagues to have drinks.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has seized upon a leaked message from Priti Patel urging other Tory MPs in a WhatsApp group to get behind Boris Johnson.
But she reminded the home secretary of her own words last year when she urged people to call the police to report their neighbours holding parties during lockdown.
She wrote on Twitter: “Sept 2020 Priti Patel said she’d call police to report neighbours holding parties. Today she’s defending Boris Johnson after he admitted doing just that.
“As Home Sec she’s responsible for upholding the rule of law for all. Not one rule for your mates & another for everyone else.”
Good evening, Tom Ambrose here to bring you all the latest fallout from Westminster today as Boris Johnson’s own MPs continue to turn up the heat on the prime minister after his display in the Commons this afternoon.
The Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has unsurprisingly leapt to the defence of Johnson, telling Times Radio:
I think the prime minister has got things right again and again and again.
But like us all, he accepts that during a two-and-a-half-year period there will be things that with hindsight would have been done differently.
He dismissed opinion polls suggesting Johnson should resign and said Tory MPs who have called for the PM to go were “people who are always unhappy”. He said:
They are people who have never really supported the prime minister, two of the ones you mentioned have always been quite strongly opposed to him, and therefore you would expect them to be relatively grumpy, and so that’s not surprising.
I think they are fundamentally mistaken and they are misjudging where we are and what the prime minister has succeeded in doing.
However, many Conservatives appear to have turned on the prime minister.
For example, the York Outer MP Julian Sturdy has said Johnson’s claim he thought the gathering at Downing Street was work-related “will not wash with the British public, who at the relevant time were making significant sacrifices”.
In a statement to The Yorkshire Post he said:
The fact is, that at a time when people were not allowed to attend the funeral of their loved ones or comfort their dying relatives, when fines were being issued for people meeting for a coffee in the park, Downing Street should not have been holding social events of any sort.
I share the frustration and disappointment of the many constituents who have contacted me over this, and assure them that I will make this known in holding the prime minister to account.
This is from my colleague Severin Carrell. He says more than 60% of Tory MSPs are now calling for Boris Johnson’s resignation.
The Conservative party is a unionist party and in Scotland it is the largest opposition party. But to what extent can it remain a proper UK party if its UK leader is unacceptable to the party in Scotland (where Boris Johnson is hugely unpopular, and where backing him would be even more toxic for a Conservative politician than in England)?
Johnson says he is a unionist. But Brexit, which he arguably made happen, has put fresh strains on the union, during Covid he has had to govern, in many respects, as an English PM, not a UK PM (because devolution has allowed health policy to vary markedly), and now his leadership is driving an England/Scotland wedge through the party.
On that note, I am done for the day, but my colleague Tom Ambrose is taking over to keep you updated with the latest developments.
Dominic Cummings, the former Boris Johnson adviser who first revealed last week that there was a party in No 10 on 20 May 2020, says Johnson’s claim that it was a work event, and technically within the rules, is rubbish.
Raab says he expects Johnson to continue in office 'for many years to come'
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy PM, told BBC News that Boris Johnson had given a “very clear account” of the events of 20 May 2020. He said:
He has been clear that he believed he was acting in accordance with the rules at the time but, of course, understands the perception of those that those in power are not following the rules that many others are required to, particularly those who have been through serious hardship or lost loved ones during this pandemic, and that’s why he’s apologised.
Asked in what other job would people be invited to “bring their own booze” to a work meeting, Raab said:
That’s precisely why Sue Gray, who is a very senior civil servant, has been tasked to conduct an independent investigation to make sure that all of those questions can be answered in a way that is clear, transparent and open.
Asked if he would run again for the Tory leadership, Raab said that was a “daft question”. He added: “I’m fully supportive of this prime minister and I’m sure he will continue for many years to come.”
That is not a prediction other ministers have been making. Even Johnson himself, at PMQs, responded to the many calls for his resignation by saying that he wanted to await the findings of the Sue Gray inquiry, not by saying that he intended to stay on regardless.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has told Times Radio that those Tories calling for Boris Johnson to resign are people who are “always unhappy” because they did not support him anyway. These are from the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant posted this on Twitter earlier.
You can read Bryant’s question at 12.42pm.
Ruth Davidson backs call for Johnson's resignation
Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, has said that Douglas Ross, the current one, was right to call for Boris Johnson’s resignation.
Tory MP William Wragg says Johnson should quit, saying he's damaging reputation of party
The Conservative MP William Wragg, chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee and a vice chair of the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee executive, has joined those saying Boris Johnson should quit. In an interview with the PM programme he said:
Unfortunately, I wasn’t reassured [by what Johnson said at PMQs]. I fear this is simply going to be a continuing distraction to the good governance of the country.
And I’m particularly concerned, as a Conservative MP with interests of the country, my constituency and the Conservative party, that a series of unforced errors on matters of integrity are deeply damaging to the perception of my colleagues and the party. And that is deeply unfair to them.
As colleagues are saying to one another and off the record, I sadly think that the prime minister’s position is untenable.
Wragg also said the party should take the initiative, instead of leaving it to Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the partygate inquiry, to effective decide the PM’s fate. He said:
I don’t believe 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. I think it is for the Conservative party, if not the prime minister in fact, to make that decision, and to realise what is in the best interests so that we can move forward both as a party and a country.
More than half of Scottish Tory MSPs now backing call for Johnson to quit
The roll-call of Scottish Conservative MSPs backing Douglas Ross’s call for the prime minister to stand down has grown to 15 and climbing, the i’s Chris Green reports. Including Ross himself, that now makes up more than half the Scottish Tory group of 31 MSPs at Holyrood.
Since they are not MPs, except Ross, they will have no say in any vote of confidence by Tory backbenchers at Westminster but their backing for his stance on this should be a good clue for how the Conservatives’ six Scottish MPs will be voting if this comes up before the 1922 Committee.
In a statement on his website Neil Hudson, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, says that he welcomed Boris Johnson’s admission and apology a PMQs. But Hudson implied that was not the end of the matter. He went on:
I will not defend the indefensible and I fully share the country’s outrage and upset when people up and down the land were making huge personal and sometimes tragic sacrifices to do the right thing and obey the public health rules. We need quickly to get clarity and full transparency as to what happened. Again, if rules have been broken then quite rightly there should be serious consequences.
Twitter is having fun with Boris Johnson’s claim that he though the party he attended in the N0 10 garden was a work event. (See 12.26pm.)
From the Larry the Cat account
From the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy
From the FT’s Chris Cook
UK records 398 more Covid deaths - highest daily total since February
The UK has recorded 129,587 new Covid cases, and 398 further deaths, the government’s coronavirus dashboard says. For the second day in a row deaths are at the highest level since February, when 442 deaths were recorded on 24th. Yesterday the daily recorded total was 379.
Scottish Tory MSPs back Douglas Ross's call for Johnson to quit
A host of Scottish Conservative MSPs in Holyrood have backed Douglas Ross’s call for Boris Johnson to quit as leader and prime minister, a clear indicator the Scottish Tories believe his continued premiership will be disastrous for their attempts to prevent Scottish independence.
Soon after Ross called for Johnson to resign on Wednesday afternoon, MSPs Jackson Carlaw, Ross’s predecessor as Scottish leader, Murdo Fraser, Tess White, Russell Findlay, Liz Smith, Craig Hoy and Douglas Lumsden all publicly supported him.
This is from Carlaw, who also served as deputy to former Scottish leader Ruth Davidson.
And this is from Smith.
Perhaps Iain Dale has prompted them into action (see 3.09pm) - some cabinet ministers are now putting out tweets that are (moderately) supportive of Boris Johnson. But they all imply the findings of the Sue Gray investigation should determine what happens next, which does not let Johnson off the hook.
From Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary
From Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary
From Sajid Javid, the health secretary
A spokeswoman for Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy first minister, has said it is “categorically untrue” to say Raab was at the No 10 party on 20 May 2020. “He wasn’t invited and didn’t attend,” the spokeswoman said. Earlier the Conservative MP Simon Hoare implied Raab was there. (See 2.19pm.)
In his pooled TV interview, Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, stressed that he was speaking as an individual MP, not on behalf of the entire Scottish party. But he said other MPs shared his concerns. He said:
This is a position I have taken as an individual MP and MSP. I know speaking to colleagues here in the Scottish parliament and the UK parliament there’s significant unrest and concern about the actions that took place in Downing Street on 20 May 2020.
Ross said the 20 May gathering clearly was a party.
The evidence is clear. People were invited to bring their own booze, to enjoy the garden in Downing Street and that is by any definition a party, a gathering that wasn’t allowed and therefore the prime minister broke his own rules.
Ross also said it was up to the prime minister how quickly he stood down and it was up to other MPs whether they pressed for a motion of no confidence in him. He said:
I think we have seen across the house some pretty quite galling stories of how people were affected either themselves or their constituents, and I think there’s a strength of feeling across the spectrum that this is a most serious issue.
PoliticsHome is also hearing Tory chatter about a successful leadership challenge to Boris Johnson being inevitable.
And here is an extract from the PoliticsHome story by Alain Tolhust, Kate Proctor and Adam Payne.
One Tory backbencher described the apology as “half-arsed”, and a senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome it was “just a matter of time” before Johnson faced a leadership challenge, and dismissed today’s apology ...
Another backbencher agreed today’s statement had not got Johnson off the hook. “I just don’t see what this does except buy days of time at most,” they said.
One MP told PoliticsHome that Johnson mingled with colleagues in the Commons Tea Room after PMQs apologising for all the “crap” he had put them through.
He is said to have told them he was being “electrocuted by the anger of the public”.
Covid infections continued to rise in all four nations of the UK in the past week according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics.
The ONS estimates that 3,735,000 people in England, or one in 15, had Covid in the week ending 6 January – a new pandemic high – based on swabs taken from random households in the community.
While infections increased across England, the percentage of people testing positive in London fell for the first time in the Omicron wave, suggesting that the sharp surge in cases in the capital may have peaked. All other regions of England saw infections rise, except the east of England where the trend was uncertain.
People aged 70 and over had the lowest infection rates in England, but the percentage testing positive rose in those aged 50 and above, indicating that the virus is still spreading into the older, more vulnerable age groups.
In other countries of the UK, the ONS estimates that one in 20 had Covid in the week studied, equating to 297,400 infections in Scotland, 169,100 in Wales and 99,200 in Northern Ireland. The rise of Omicron has driven Delta infections to “very low levels”, the survey found.
Johnson's position as PM 'no longer tenable', says Ross
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has “regretfully” called for Boris Johnson to quit as prime minister after he admitted attending a rule-breaking party in the garden of 10 Downing Street.
Ross, who spoke to Johnson on Wednesday afternoon, told broadcasters in a pooled interview:
Regretfully I have to say that his position is no longer tenable. There was one simple question to answer yesterday, indeed, since Monday night when we saw this invitation, which was to more than 100 people asking them to join others in the Downing Street garden and bring their own booze. If the prime minister was there, and he accepted today that he was, that I felt he could not continue.
What we also heard from the prime minister today was an apology. And he said, with hindsight, we would have done things differently, which for me, is an acceptance from the prime minister that it was wrong, and therefore, I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in the position now where I don’t think he can continue as he leader of the Conservatives.
Ross said he was speaking in his capacity as an MP, not as Scottish Tory leader on behalf of the party in Scotland.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross says Johnson should resign
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, is calling on Boris Johnson to resign, Sky News is reporting.
This is not entirely unexpected in the light of what Ross said yesterday, when he told broadcasters that Johnson would have to resign if he attended a lockdown-busting party at No 10 because, given what ministers were telling the public to do at the time, such hypocrisy would have been “utterly despicable”.
Other Tory MPs doubtless feel the same way, but there is an important Scotland dimension to this too. Johnson is considerably more unpopular in Scotland than he is in England, and Ross must in part be thinking that the Scottish Conservatives have to dissociate themselves from Johnson to remain viable in Holyrood politics.
Lord Falconer, the Labour former lord chancellor, told Radio 4’s the World at One that Boris Johnson should be fined, or charged, because he admitted at PMQs that he attended an event that broke the law. He said that despite Johnson’s “lawyerly words” about it being a work event, a judge would not accept that argument.
Falconer also said that Johnson should resign because he had misled parliament. As evidence, he cited what Johnson said in December, when he told MPs at PMQs that he was angry to learn about parties at No 10. That implied he had not attended any, Falconer said. He went on:
Well, he had [attended parties at No 10]. He was lying to the house, and he should pay the price. The price is, because this is the way our political system works, if you can’t be trusted to inform the Commons honestly, for the prime minister, you’ve got to go, because nobody can trust you.
This is from Iain Dale, the broadcaster and former Tory adviser.
According to ITV’s Anushka Asthana, Conservative MPs in increasing numbers think Boris Johnson will, or should, leave office.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, has written an open letter today to the Met police urging them to investigate the No 10 party last May, and to interview Boris Johnson. Davey said:
Boris Johnson admitted today that he did attend this illegal party in the Downing Street garden. The Met police must now confirm that a full investigation will be launched and that the prime minister himself will be interviewed.
The police must reassure the public that justice will be done and there isn’t one rule for them and another for Boris Johnson and his colleagues in Downing Street.
Johnson did not see invite to staff inviting them to BYOB drinks do, No 10 says
The Downing Street post-PMQs lobby briefing has just finished. Boris Johnson’s press secretary told journalists the PM did not see the email sent by Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary, to staff inviting them to the party.
The email made it clear that the event - which Johnson said today he thought was a work event (see 12.26pm) - was a party. This is what it said:
Hi all, After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!
At the briefing, the press secretary also refused to say whether or not Johnson would resign if Sue Gray found against him, claiming that was a hypothetical question.
And this is from ITV’s Robert Peston. As an earlier post illustrated (see 11.31am), a remarkable amount of detail about this party is now being passed on to journalists (not a good sign for No 10).
This is from Sky’s Sam Coates, quoting the Conservative MP Simon Hoare. If Hoare is trying to be helpful, he is probably not succeeding.
UPDATE: Here is the full quote. Hoare said:
As I understand it, and this is a third-hand understanding, this was a party organised to say, in the first instance, welcome back prime minister.
He had been in hospital, I think I’ve got the timeline right, and recuperating at Chequers.
It was also a way of saying thank you to Dominic Raab for holding the fort.
So whether the prime minister knew it was taking place or whether everybody just jumped out of the shrubbery and said: ‘Surprise’, I don’t know.
Asked whether Johnson can survive, Hoare replied: “I don’t know.”
At a post-PMQs briefing Labour said it was now only a matter of time before Boris Johnson had to go. A spokesman for the Labour leader said:
As Keir said in PMQs today, it is only a matter of time now whether the prime minister is rejected by the public, the Conservative party or does the decent thing and resigns himself, and those are still the three ways forward.
If you’re asking why Keir Starmer used the language he did today, it was very simply because we have now got, after all of the various tortured attempts at explaining what happened, an on-the-record acknowledgement in parliament from the prime minister that the rules were broken, that there was inappropriate behaviour in Downing Street, that he was involved in it, and, by any reasonable measure, I think that meets the test of calling on him to resign.
The spokesman also said Starmer did not want to see civil servants take the blame on Johnson’s behalf. He said:
We have kept the focus on the person who is responsible and the buck stops with the prime minister.
We don’t want to see an exercise where civil servants are going to get thrown under the bus to try and protect the prime minister - the fact of the matter is that the culture in government is set from the top and so our interest is in what the prime minister knew, when he knew it and why he hasn’t been able to tell us the truth up to this point.
Johnson 'dead man walking', claims Tory MP Roger Gale
Sir Roger Gale, a veteran Tory backbencher, has described Boris Johnson as a “dead man walking”. He told Radio 4’s the World at One:
Unfortunately what the prime minister has said today leaves people like me in an impossible situation.
We now know that the prime minister spent 25 minutes at what was quite clearly a party. That means that he misled the house.
I fear that it is now going to have to be the work of the 1922 [Committee] to determine precisely how we proceed.
If you look at the twittersphere after prime minister’s question time today, it sounds to me I am afraid very much as though politically the prime minister is a dead man walking.
Gale is something of a maverick and is already on record as wanting a no confidence in Boris Johnson. Last month he said he had already written to the chair of the 1922 Committee asking for one.
The last MP to use this phrase in public may have been George Osborne, who said Theresa May was a “dead woman walking” soon after the 2017 general election. But in fact May remained in office for another two years.
And this is from my colleague Aubrey Allegretti, who is also getting the impression from Conservative MPs that they believe his PMQs apology and explanation will not be enough to rescue him.
From Sky’s Joe Pike
Adam Wagner, the lawyer and expert commentator on Covid regulations, has posted a thread on Twitter analysing Boris Johnson’s apology. It starts here.
Wagner says, from a legal point of view, the apology seems designed to evade personal liablility.
This is from Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, who has been one of the Tories most critical of Boris Johnson over the No 10 party.
These are from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
PM 'taking British public for fools', say bereaved families' campaign group
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign has accused Boris Johnson of “taking the British public for fools” following his statement to MPs. (See 12.26pm.) Hannah Brady, spokesperson for the group, said:
The prime minister’s lies have finally caught up with him. Not content with kicking bereaved families like mine in the teeth by breaking the rules he set and then lying to us about it, he’s now taking the British public for fools by pretending he ‘didn’t know it was a party’.
Every time he lies to us, he pours more salt into the wounds of those who have already lost so much to this pandemic, but that doesn’t stop him. He’s incapable of telling the truth and he needs to go.
The prime minister is now a walking public health hazard, who has lost the trust, respect and good faith of the public. If restrictions are needed to protect lives in the future, people will simply laugh at him. He has no moral authority and will cost lives.
He has broken his own rules and if he had any decency he would now resign, rather than hide behind an internal “inquiry”. If he doesn’t, his MPs should remove him. They have a moral duty to do so.
Brady’s own personal story was mentioned by Starmer at PMQs. See 12.17pm.
PMQs - snap verdict
Earlier I quoted what might be described as sage modelling (but not Sage modelling) of how Boris Johnson was likely to apologise and explain. (See 11.02am.) It turned out to be fairly accurate; he accepted his attendance at the party, claimed he thought it was a legitimate work event, and apologised for error of judgment and the impression given. In the circumstances, this was probably his safest option.
If he admitted that it was a party that was clearly outside the rules, he would be admitting knowingly doing wrong, increasing the prospects of a police investigation and making it inevitable that some Tory MPs would demand his resignation. (See, for example, Douglas Ross here, or Nigel Mills at 10.14am.)
But this being the least worst option does not make it a good option, and there are two colossal problems with the position adopted by the PM today.
First, his argument that this was just a work event is implausible. Johnson more or less conceded this himself in his statement, when he talked about how “even if [the event] could be said technically to fall within the guidance ...” – a formula that implies he knows it didn’t. Keir Starmer was ready for this, and his response (see 12.07pm) was faultless. (Chris Bryant’s reaction was excellent too. See 12.42pm, where the full quote is now visible in the post, although you may have to refresh the page to see it.)
Second, apologies only work if people think they are sincere, and many people – probably most people – will not view Johnson’s apology as genuine. He has many qualities (which his opponents, at their cost, overlook), but honesty is not one of them, and he cannot carry off apologising with much credibility. This showed during PMQs by the speed with which he reverted to more partisan defence mechanisms.
It could have been a lot worse. Conservative MPs might have attacked him in the open; they didn’t. But they did not defend him on partygate either, and it felt very much as if the parliamentary party jury is still out. MPs, particularly those with marginal seats to defend, are sensitive to the views of their voters and many will probably want to see whether public anger is growing, or dissipating, before they take their next steps.
If any Labour MPs were hoping for an implosion, that did not happen. But that does not make it a disappointing day for the opposition. Although Starmer is calling for Johnson’s resignation, strategically that is probably the last thing Labour wants. Starmer gains most from having a discredited and reviled PM continue in office, and today that is what he’s got.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, asks why Allegra Stratton, a woman, is the only person to have resigned over No 10 parties, while Johnson, who attended them, is still in post. He says Johnson should resign.
Johnson says he does not agree, and he urges Davey to wait for the Gray report.
'How stupid does PM think public are?' - Bryant says PM's party explanation implausible
Chris Bryant (Lab) says the PM is arguing he did not realise he was at a social event.
How stupid does the prime minister think the British people are?
So, the prime minister didn’t spot that he was at a social event. That’s the excuse isn’t it? Come off it.
I mean how stupid does the prime minister think the British people are.
The worst of it is he’s already managed to completely destroy Allegra Stratton’s career, he’s tarnished the reputation of Lord Geidt, and now he’s making fools of every single MP who cheered him earlier, every single one who goes out on the radio and television to defend this shower of shenanigans.
Would it not be absolutely despicable if, in the search for a scapegoat, some junior member of staff ends up losing their job, but he kept his?
Johnson says he does not agree. He says Bryant should await the Gray report.
Some of the earlier posts, covering the Johnson/Starmer exchanges, have now been beefed up with direct quotes, from PA Media. You may need to refresh the page to get them to appear.
This is from the BBC’s Nick Robinson on Johnson’s apology.
Toby Perkins (Lab) says no PM has diminished the office like Johnson. He has been sacked from two previous jobs for lying. Why should the office of PM be held to a lower standard.
Johnson says he does not agree.
Karl Turner (Lab) says Johnson has only apologised because he was caught. He says Johnson still wants to maintain one rule for him, and another for the rest of us. He must resign.
Johnson refers Turner to the answer given earlier.
Johnson's statement apologising for No 10 party, which he claims he thought was work event
This is what Johnson said in his opening statement.
I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months.
I know the anguish they have been through – unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love.
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.
And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.
No 10 is a big department with a garden as an extension of the office which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus.
When I went into that garden just after six on 20 May 2020, 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.
With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.
I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.
All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others so that the full facts can be established.
Stephen Farry (Alliance) says his constituents feel betrayed by the PM. Standards in public life have declined. Will he resign?
Johnson says, on Farry’s “political point”, Farry should wait for the Gray report.
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, quotes a former soldier saying he follows the rules but the PM doesn’t. Will the PM resign?
Johnson says Blackford should wait until the inquiry is concluded.
Blackford says Johnson has no shame. He was drinking and laughing in his garden while the public were suffering.
If the prime minister has no sense of shame, the Tory backbenchers must act to remove him.
Johnson thanks Blackford for his advice. He says he feel contrition. But he stresses the success of the vaccination programme.
Starmer says he spoke last night to a woman, Hannah Brady , whose father died last May.
Her father died just days before the drinks trolley was being wheeled through Downing Street and last year Hannah met the prime minister in the Downing Street garden. She looked the prime minister in the eye and told him of her loss.
The prime minister told Hannah he had done everything he could to protect her dad. Looking back, what Hannah told me last night was this - she realises the prime minister had partied in that same garden the very day her dad’s death certificate was signed.
What Hannah wants to know is this: does the prime minister understand why it makes her feel sick to think about the way he’s behaved?
Johnson says he understands how she feels.
I sympathise deeply with Hannah, with people who have suffered up and down this country during the pandemic, and I repeat that I wish things had been done differently on that evening, and I repeat my apology for all the misjudgments that may have been made, that were made on my watch in No 10 and across the government.
I want to reassure the people of this country, including Hannah and her family, that we have been working to do everything we can to protect her and her family.
Starmer says Johnson has misled parliament, which is in breach of the rules. Will his party kick him out or will the public kick him out?
We’ve got the prime minister attending Downing Street parties - a clear breach of the rules. We’ve got the prime minister putting forward a series of ridiculous denials which he knows are untrue - a clear breach of the ministerial code. That code says ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.
The party’s over, prime minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out or will he do the decent thing and resign?
Johnson says Starmer is paid to try to get him out of office. He says Starmer should wait for the Gray report. He apologises for the mistakes made.
I know it is his objective and he is paid to try to remove me from office and I appreciate that and I accept that.
But may I humbly suggest to him that he should wait until the inquiry has concluded, he should study it for himself and I will certainly respond as appropriate - and I hope that he does - but in the meantime, yes, I certainly wish that things had happened differently on the evening of 20 May and I apologise for all the misjudgments that have been made for which I take full responsibility.
Starmer says the PM originally said he had been assured there were no parties. Then the video landed, and he pretended he was sickened by the parties. Now it turns out he was at the parties. Starmer says the public think he is “lying through his teeth”.
Everyone can see what happened. It started with reports of boozy parties in Downing Street during lockdown. The prime minister pretended that he had been assured there were no parties. How that fits with his defence now I do not know.
Then the video landed, blowing the prime minister’s first defence out of the water, so then he pretended ... he was sickened and furious about the parties, now it turns out he was at the parties all along. Can’t the prime minister see why the British public think he’s lying through his teeth?
Tory MPs object, on the grounds that MPs should not accuse each other of lying. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, defends Starmer, saying he is talking about what the public think.
Johnson says he does not accept that. He says a lawyer should wait for the facts.
It’s up to [Starmer] to choose how he conducts himself in this place ... what he said is wrong in several key respects, but that does not detract from the basic point that I want to make today, which is that I accept that we should have done things differently on that evening.
As I said to the house, I believe that the events in question were within the guidance and were within the rules, and that was certainly the assumption on which I operated ... He should wait before he jumps to conclusions, a lawyer should respect the inquiry. I hope that he will wait until the facts are established and brought to this house.
Starmer says Matt Hancock resigned when he broke the rules, and Allegra Stratton resigned for laughing about rule-breaking. Why does the PM think the rules don’t apply to him.
Why does the prime minister still think that the rules don’t apply to him?
When the prime minister’s former health secretary broke the rules, he resigned and the prime minister said he was right to do so.
When the prime minister’s spokesperson laughed about the rules being broken, she resigned and the prime minister accepted that resignation.
Why does the prime minister still think that the rules don’t apply to him?
Johnson says that is not what he said.
That’s not what I’ve said and I understand the point that he makes. As I’ve said, I regret the way things happened on the evening in question and I apologise, but if I may say to him, I do think it would be better if he waited until the full conclusion of the inquiry, until the full facts are brought before this house and he will have an opportunity to put his points again.
Starmer asks if the PM is so contemptuous of the public he thinks he can ride this out.
Johnson confirms he heard Jim Shannon in the Commons yesterday (breaking down when he talked about the death of his mother-in-law). He says he bitterly regrets what happened. He has apologised. But Starmer must wait for the Gray report.
Johnson says he thought it was a work event.
I appreciate the point that [Starmer is] making about the event that I attended. I want to repeat that I thought it was a work event and I regret very much that we did not do things differently that evening.
I take responsibility and I apologise. But as for his political point, I don’t think that he should pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry. He will have a further opportunity, I hope, to question me as soon as possible.
Starmer says PM's claim he did not realise he was at party is 'offensive to public'
Keir Starmer says:
There we have it. After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road. His defence ... that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public.
He’s finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?
PM says he did attend No 10 party, but thought it was work event - and apologises
Boris Johnson starts with a tribute to Jack Dromey, the Labour MP who died this week.
He goes on to say he wants to apologise. Many people have made extraordinary sacrifices. He know the rage they feel with him and with the government he leads when they think the rules are not being followed.
Although he cannot anticipate the results of the Sue Gray inquiry, he knows there are things they did not get right.
He says Downing Street is a big complex. When he went into the garden on 20 May, he thought it was a work event. He says he left after 25 minutes. But now he knows he should have ended the event.
He says he offers his heartfelt apologies.
Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary, has become the first cabinet minister to publicly express concerns about the latest partygate revelations. As WalesOnline reports, Hart said this morning:
We’re in the middle of an investigation, that was set up by the PM to get to the bottom and to get to the truth about what was reasonable at the time and what wasn’t. It’s frustrating to have to rely on the investigation and we must be careful to not pre-judge that or what the PM will say in a few minutes’ time.
The one thing I’m not going to do is make light of something that is unquestionably something of a significant public concern.
I don’t live on a different planet. The frustration and the hurt and indignation and the incredulity that emerging stories like this produce. I’ve got, like everyone, family and friends asking me these questions. We have to get to the bottom of this.
Judgment will need to be made about what happens next.
PMQs is starting soon.
Here is the list of MPs down to ask a question.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is a favourite to replace Boris Johnson if he does have to resign. Conveniently, a diary engagement in Devon means that Sunak will be nowhere near the Commons at 12pm, and won’t have to sit on the frontbench alongside the PM offering his support.
Turning away from partygate for a moment, the Good Law Project, a campaigning group which has been using the law to challenge the government on policy matters, says it has won an important victory in the high court today on PPE procurement. It says the high court has accepted its case that the governnment’s use of a fast-track VIP lane, that allowed suppliers recommended by ministers to get priority consideration when emergency PPE contracts were being handed out in earlier stages of the pandemic, was unlawful.
Welcoming the decision, Jo Maugham, head of the Good Law Project, said: “Never again should any government treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its associates and donors at public expense.”
There is some excellent detail about the No 10 party on 20 May 2020 in the Times’s backgrounder. In their report (paywall), Steven Swinford and Henry Zeffman say that Martin Reynolds, who sent out the email invitation to around 100 staff as the PM’s principal private secretary, became “panicky” in advance of the event, because staff were concerned it was against the rules, but decided cancelling the event would make things worse. They go on:
That afternoon, staff began preparations. A row of tables was set up on one side of the garden to act as a bar. In the garden itself more tables were set up in a layout to encourage people to observe social-distancing rules.
Officials and advisers began arriving shortly after 6pm. While many stayed away, about 40 came. Many took up Reynolds’ suggestion in his email that they should “BYOB” — bring your own booze — taking a trip to the Tesco Express next to Westminster station. The drinks table was well stocked with gin, rosé, red wine and white wine, and guests began to arrive and mingle.
Two sources said that the prime minister attended, with one saying he was “wandering round gladhanding people”. His fiancée Carrie Symonds, whom he married last year, also attended and was said to have been drinking with Henry Newman, then an adviser to Michael Gove and now a senior figure in No 10.
The Times has been told that one senior official at the event joked about the risk of surveillance by drones, which was viewed as a tacit admission that the rules were being breached.
‘Indefensible’: Tory MPs give verdicts on No 10 garden party
My colleague Damien Gayle has a round-up of what Tory MPs have been saying about the No 10 party. It’s here.
According to the Liberal Democrats, the police in England issued 118,419 fines for breaking lockdown rules between 27 March 2020 and 17 October last year. That included 800 fines in the week when the No 10 party was held on 20 May 2020.
In London 17,745 fines were issued between March 2020 and October last year, including 113 for holding illegal gatherings of more than 30 people.
The party has taken the figures from a report (pdf) from the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said:
Thousands of Londoners have been fined for flouting lockdown rules during the pandemic. It would be double standards of the worst kind for the police to turn a blind eye when those in No 10 have done the same.
There will be two urgent questions in the Commons after PMQs. The first, at 12.30pm, will cover the government’s vaccination strategy, and at about 1.15pm there will be one on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
What will Boris Johnson say about partygate at PMQs? Last night the FT columnist Robert Shrimsley tried to guess, and his script reads like a plausible version of what we may hear in about an hour’s time.
The Independent’s John Rentoul is expecting something very similar.
In response to Shrimsley’s tweet, John McTernan, who worked for Tony Blair in Downing Street, proposes a much more humbling mea culpa - laced with patriotism, and a promise to do better. (Other politicians might be able to pull this off, but given Johnson’s record on promise-keeping, he might find it hard.)
Theo Bertram, another former Labour No 10 aide, thinks Martin Reynolds will be sacrificed.
And the i’s Paul Waugh suggests Johnson might go for a wider standards overhaul.
Another journalist who is very well plugged in to the thinking of Tory MPs is the Conservative Home editor Paul Goodman, a former MP himself. In what might be a rather ominous development for Johnson, Goodman devotes his main ConHome article this morning to discussing the process by which the Conservative party might go about replacing him (although he does not describe Johnson’s resignation as inevitable).
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey says Johnson should resign
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, has said Boris Johnson should resign. He told BBC Breakfast:
Boris Johnson is now incapable of leading our country through this public health crisis - I actually think he is a threat to the health of the nation, because no-one will do anything he says because he has now shown to have been deceitful, so Boris Johnson must now resign ...
He said to parliament and to the country before Christmas when he was apologising that he didn’t know about the parties, and now we know he was at at least one of those parties.
So, he has clearly lied, he has broken the ministerial code, he has broken the law, he’s misled parliament - any prime minister in the past would resign for just one of those offences ...
If he has a shred of decency left in him, I think he must resign today.
This is from James Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor, who is one of the lobby journalists best informed on the thinking in the Conservative parliamentary party.
The Conservative MP Christian Wakeford says, in what is clearly a reference to the No 10 partygate stories, that he and his colleagues have been asked to “defend the indefensible”.
Tory MPs divided over whether Johnson can stay if he attended lockdown-busting No 10 party
This is what some Conservative MPs have been saying about Boris Johnson in interviews broadcast this morning.
Huw Merriman told the Today programme that he did not think Johnson inevitably had to resign if he attended the party on 20 May 2020. He said:
We don’t know what’s happened and I feel rotten speculating before we know the facts - but as far as I’m concerned we judge people in the round. That includes the action that was taken during the pandemic, the support, the vaccination programme, [and] holding the nerve on plan B. Then you then judge where people have done wrong.
But Merriman also said Johnson had to clear up what happened.
Nigel Mills took the opposite view. He said that if Johnson did attend the party, he would have to go. He told the BBC:
It is utterly untenable, we have seen people resign for far less than that. If the prime minister knowingly attended a party, I can’t see how he can survive ...
If he was there he better try a hugely fulsome apology and see if the country will buy it but I’m not sure they will.
And Tobias Ellwood said it was essential for Johnson to show some contrition. He told Sky News:
I strongly urge the prime minister to act now, to apologise for No 10’s poor judgment, to show some contrition and to be committed to appropriately respond to Sue Gray’s findings when they come out. We can’t allow things to drift, that is not an option.
Asked if that would be enough for Johnson to stay in post, Ellwood replied:
It would probably be for the cabinet then to judge, and then also what he says and how he says it. But we need to get ahead of the story. This is distracting us, it is taking airtime away.
Rayner says Johnson's position will be untenable if he has lied to MPs about parties
In interviews this morning Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, also said that Boris Johnson’s position would be untenable if it turns out he has attended lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street because that would mean that he had lied to the House of Commons (which is against the ministerial code, and generally seen as a resignation offence for ministers).
Asked if Johnson would have to resign if he did admit to attending the 20 May party, Rayner told BBC Breakfast:
Boris Johnson has to account for his actions and the ministerial code is very clear that if he has misled parliament and he has not abided by that code, then he should go.
She added that if it was proved he had “lied to the British public, lied to Parliament and he has attended parties during lockdown, then his position is untenable”.
Yesterday Labour released a dossier to journalists citing the many occasions since early December, when the partygate allegations first emerged, when Johnson has denied that rules were broken. Some of those denials were at the despatch box in the Commons, and some were in TV interviews.
But the quotes in the Commons relate to allegations that the rules were broken in Christmas 2020, and Johnson’s denials related to those events, not the 20 May one. And after initially claiming that no rules had been broken, Johnson adjusted his line, and instead started telling MPs he had been assured that no rules were broken (implying that if he was being misleading, it was someone else’s fault, because he had been misled himself).
Keir Starmer will be at PMQs today, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reports. Starmer has been isolating since he tested positive for Covid last week. But he has tested negative two days in a row - making him a beneficiary of the government’s decision to cut the minimum isolation period from 10 days to seven days.
Boris Johnson cannot defend No 10 party by claiming it was work, says Labour
Good morning. Like many politicians, Boris Johnson normally lives by the dictum, “Never apologise, never explain”. (It’s a saying attributed to various people, but the best source for it I can find is Jacky Fisher, first sea lord in the first world war, who wrote in a letter to the Times “Never contradict, never explain, never apologise”.) But today, in relation to the reports that he attended a staff party in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, when the country was in lockdown and outdoor gatherings were banned, Johnson is almost certainly going to have to come up with some sort of apology and some sort of explanation. Yesterday No 10 was trying to stick to the line that it could wait until Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating all the partygate allegations, produces her report. But anyone following the Westminster news from yesterday for more than about 30 seconds will have twigged that that line can no longer hold.
Here is the Guardian story summing up the situation overnight.
Johnson will be in the Commons for PMQs at 12pm. Last night there was speculation about some sort of statement beforehand, but that probably referred to a plan to begin PMQs with a comment addressing the partygate affair, to gain some credit ahead of Keir Starmer’s first question. This is exactly what Johnson did on 8 December, when he was under intense pressure because of the release of the video showing Allegra Stratton, his then spokesperson, effectively confirming a separate lockdown-busting No 10 party (on 18 December 2020), and laughing about it, at a briefing rehearsal. (The latest allegation is much worse, for reasons explained here yesterday.)
The nature of Johnson’s explanation/apology may well determine how long he remains as prime minister. Obviously some people are likely to be more forgiving than others, but what will matter most for Johnson will be the reaction of Tory MPs, who have the power to trigger a confidence vote if they conclude this afternoon that he remains too much of a liability. Ultimately the public’s reaction will be more important (because that will shape whether Tory MPs conclude he remains viable as a leader), but it might take longer to assess what the public’s considered view is.
Given that some Tory MPs have said Johnson would have to resign if he knowingly attended a social party, Johnson is likely to argue that the 20 May event last year was essentially a work function, but in a garden, with alcohol. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has been doing interviews and she told the Today programme that this explanation would be implausible. She said:
I don’t accept that sending out invitations to bring your own booze - the weather’s lovely, come out into the garden - to 100 staff as work, to be honest. I think it’s very clear that that breaks the Covid rules.
Asked if she accepted that the No 10 garden could be seen as a workplace, Rayner replied:
Many key workers are NHS staff who were working very heavy shifts, 12-hour shifts with full PPE on - they didn’t break out into the garden with cheese and wine and bring your own booze scenarios.
They were working incredibly hard watching people’s loved ones die, holding smart phones and iPads in front of them so they could say goodbye to their loved ones - it is not acceptable to say: ‘This is a workplace garden, so we all cracked open the bubbly because it was a really nice day.’
Many people at the time understood the rules, and the rules were very clear.
Largely Johnson’s future will be determined by what he says at PMQs, but there could be other partygate-related developments today too. A few hours after PMQs on 8 December Stratton resigned. Martin Reynolds, who as Johnson’s principal private secretary sent out the invitation to the 20 May party, is widely expected to go at some point and it is quite possible that that could be today.
Apart from PMQs, there is not much on the agenda. Today the blog will be largely focused on Johnson and partygate.
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