Within minutes of delivering a “heartfelt” apology to the Commons for attending a drinks event in the garden of No 10 during the first lockdown, Boris Johnson had a somewhat different message for Tory MPs in the tearoom.
The prime minister was, according to those present, far from contrite. He told colleagues that “we have taken a lot of hits in politics and this is one of them”, adding: “Sometimes we take the credit for things we don’t deserve and this time we’re taking hits for something we don’t deserve.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said that Johnson took a similar tone when he spoke to him yesterday afternoon. He said that the prime minister told him that he “believes he didn’t do anything wrong”.
It is understood that Johnson declined to guarantee that further damaging details about lockdown-breaking gatherings would not emerge. Within an hour and a half of their conversation Ross publicly called for Johnson to go.
Privately, Johnson is said to feel frustrated and believe he has been put in a difficult position by others. He is determined not to quit. “He’s not going to resign, he’s a fighter,” one ally said. “He has more fight in him than the vast majority of people. He’s frustrated that he’s in this position. He’s a force of nature. If there’s a single person who can charge through all of this it will be him. Never underprice that.”
Johnson’s mea culpa in the Commons was carefully calibrated and came after extensive consultation with aides and lawyers. Senior officials in Downing Street warned him that anything he said risked prejudicing an inquiry by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant he has charged with investigating allegations of lockdown parties. Johnson’s political advisers, they said, were in a “real bind” because they knew that waiting for the inquiry’s findings was unsustainable.
At prime minister’s questions Johnson admitted to attending the event in Downing Street on May 20, 2020, shortly after 6pm for 25 minutes.
“I want to apologise,” he told MPs. “I know that millions of people have made extraordinary sacrifices in the last 18 months. I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think that in No 10 rules are not being followed.”
He claimed that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”, despite reports that there were tables full of alcohol and more than 40 guests.
Carrie Symonds, his fiancée at the time, was said to be among those present and was allegedly drinking gin with Henry Newman, who was a senior adviser to Michael Gove and is now in No 10.
By arguing that the gathering was a “work event”, Johnson was, in effect, pleading ignorance — that he did not know the event was a party.
No 10 later said the prime minister was unaware of an email from Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, in which he had invited 100 staff to a “socially distanced drinks” and encouraged them to “bring your own booze”.
His apology was therefore limited to three discrete areas. First, he apologised for the public perception of the event. Second, he apologised for the mistakes of others. And third, he apologised for not breaking up the event. He did not, at any point, admit to breaching lockdown rules or apologise for attending the event in the first place.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, highlighted criticism of the prime minister by Hannah Brady, a teacher who lost her father to the coronavirus and has described the allegations of parties as “disgraceful”. She was among members of five families who met Johnson at Downing Street last September.
However, both Downing Street and the prime minister’s critics in the Conservative Party believe that the concessions he did make have bought him time, at least until Gray completes her inquiry. Only a few Tory MPs who are longstanding critics of Johnson called for him to go on the basis of his admission that he attended the event.
Sir Roger Gale, the third longest-serving Tory MP, said: “Enough is enough, a red line has been crossed.” Johnson could resign “with dignity”, he said, “or the 1922 Committee will have to take action”. Less expected was the fury of William Wragg, a Brexiteer on the right of the party and a senior member of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. Johnson’s position, he said, was “untenable”.
In private, MPs across the parliamentary party and at all levels of government are incandescent. “It’s all over,” one minister said. “It’s just not defensible and it’s astonishing how little support he has within the parliamentary party.”
Others believe that he is likely to survive. They point out that 54 Tory MPs are required to submit letters of no confidence to trigger a leadership election.
Johnson’s cabinet members were slow out of the traps to defend him. Prime minister’s questions finished shortly after 12.30pm but it was not until 3pm that Nadine Dorries, an ultra-loyalist long before Johnson made her culture secretary, broke the seal. “PM was right to personally apologise earlier. People are hurt and angry at what happened and he has taken full responsibility for that,” she tweeted.
About half an hour later Priti Patel, the home secretary, wrote in a WhatsApp group for the parliamentary party: “Team, today the prime minister has given his heartfelt apologies and taken responsibility for what has happened . . . now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel and back Boris to deliver on the People’s Priorities.”
Dominic Raab said talk of a leadership contest was “daft”. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in a significantly less helpful intervention, said that “HR does not apply to ministers”, unlike civil servants.
By the end of the day ministers were lining up to show their support. “The WhatsApp group is going ballistic with ministers swearing oaths of loyalty,” one MP said. “But generally speaking backbenchers are keeping quiet.”
Whether they will remain silent after Gray’s report remains to be seen.