UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives descended into open political warfare on Thursday after he gave a lacklustre apology for a boozy lockdown party that has outraged the public.
Most cabinet members rallied round Johnson after his mea culpa — but the backing given by some such as powerful finance minister Rishi Sunak was distinctly lukewarm.
The prime minister himself went to ground on Thursday, cancelling a planned trip to northern England after a close relative came down with Covid, in scrupulous adherence to his government’s rules.
While expressing “heartfelt apologies”, Johnson on Wednesday sparked ridicule by saying he had believed the May 2020 gathering was a work event and urged all sides to await the findings of an internal inquiry.
Douglas Ross, the Conservatives’ leader in Scotland, joined at least four Tory backbench MPs in calling for Johnson to quit after he admitted to joining the party in his Downing Street garden, when Britain was under a strict lockdown.
Cabinet member Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed Ross as a “lightweight figure” in the ruling party, earning a rebuke from senior backbencher Tobias Ellwood, who called the remark “unhelpful”.
Ellwood welcomed Johnson’s apology, while telling Times Radio: “But this is far from over, we need to address the wider issues here. There’s understandable, real anger that this has generated.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis insisted Johnson had been “very, very sincere” in his apology, amid warnings that Conservative MPs could be mobilising for a no-confidence vote.
“He does recognise the anger and upset and frustration that people feel at what they perceive happened at Number 10. He recognises that and takes responsibility,” Lewis told BBC radio.
– ‘Come clean’ –
But Lewis was forced to play down reports that Johnson had told Tory MPs, after his House of Commons apology, that he did not believe he had done anything wrong.
For the opposition Labour party, senior MP Lisa Nandy told BBC television that the prime minister’s position was “untenable”.
“What he’s not done is come clean about all the parties (in 2020) that were attended not just by him but by other members of the cabinet — he told us over and over again that no rules had been broken,” she said.
Relatives left bereaved by Covid and unable to say their final goodbyes felt “appalled, horrified and re-traumatised” by Johnson’s attendance at the party, Nandy added on ITV, urging the police to investigate.
On Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer for the first time joined other opposition leaders in demanding that Johnson resign.
London’s Metropolitan Police have not ruled out a criminal probe into the party, which occurred at a time when Britons were banned from outdoor socialising.
But for now Johnson’s fate appears to lie in the hands of senior civil servant Sue Gray, whom he has commissioned to look into the May 2020 event and other Downing Street gatherings that year.
Gray’s report is not expected to land before next week and in any case it is likely to present a factual summary of events that does not single out individuals for blame.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak, who was noticeably absent from the House of Commons on Wednesday, said Johnson had been right to apologise and urged “patience” pending Gray’s report.
Sunak is a likely contender should Johnson be forced out. Another, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, also took hours to issue any public backing but said she stood “100 percent” behind the prime minister.