Boris Johnson experienced the most difficult day of his term as prime minister on Wednesday when leaders of the Scottish Conservative Party and some English Tories called on him to resign after admitting he attended party number 10 “bring your own booze” during the isolation.
The prime minister tried to buy some time with a partial apology, saying he thought the evening rally in May 2020 was a “work event” but failed to stem a wave of anger among some Tory MPs.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labor’s leader, said the public thought he had “lied through his teeth”, while many Conservative MPs said it was only a matter of time before the prime minister faced the leadership challenge.
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, called on Johnson to resign, and he was quickly backed by his predecessor, Baroness Ruth Davidson, and more than half of the Tories in the Scottish Parliament.
Several English Tories – including veteran MP Sir Roger Gale and William Wragg, chairman of the selected public administration committee – also called on Johnson to resign. Wragg said MPs were “sincerely worn out by defending what is inevitably indefensible”.
Other Tory MPs privately said Johnson had become an obligation and that letters were being sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Tory Lagging Committee, asking for a no-confidence vote against Johnson: 54 such letters would spur a vote.
As Johnson confronted his critics at the Commons, Rishi Sunak, a potential rival in the lead, traveled 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 have suffered“ exceptional sacrifices ”in isolation.
“I know how angry they feel at me and the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the people who make the rules don’t follow the rules,” he said.
Johnson tried to classify this event as a working gathering, not a social one. “When I entered that garden. . . to thank the staff groups before returning to my office 25 minutes later and resuming work, I implicitly believed that this was a work event. ”
That was added by the Prime Minister Sue Gray, a senior civil servant investigating a series of rallies through Whitehall who allegedly violated coronavirus restrictions, she should be “allowed to complete her investigation on that day”.
Gray is expected to complete the investigation by next week “at the earliest,” one Whitehall official said. Her report is unlikely to share direct guilt, but it will focus on a “drinking culture” toward those who know her work.
“They won’t just ask questions for special advisers and politicians to answer, there will be comments about office culture, civil service culture and how that could have happened,” one government insider said. Another said, “There will be no winner from this.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, suggested that civil servants could bear the brunt of the criticism in Gray’s report.
One Tory strategist said, “An important angle has been diverted, but it will be a few difficult days.” But another party official said: “MPs could eventually decide the devil you know better. But my instinct is that it’s over. “
Party greats said the lack of an obvious replacement strengthens Johnson’s position. “None of the alternatives are particularly tasty. For now, that is his best hope “, said one former minister in the government.