Voters will think Boris Johnson is “lying through his teeth”, Keir Starmer claimed today during a bruising Prime Minister’s Questions in which the prime minister admitted to attending a drinks event in the garden of No. 10 during lockdown.
The Labour leader, returning to the Commons from self-isolation after catching Covid for a second time, attacked Johnson’s “insulting” and “offensive” apology after the PM told MPs that he thought the Downing Street gathering “was a work event”.
Starmer said Johnson was a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road”, adding: “The party is over.”
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Reaction from Tory MPs was muted as Johnson laid out his defence, with one texting Financial Times Whitehall editor Sebastian Payne: “I think he’s made it worse. He admitted he was present and tried to pass it off as a work party. Won’t wash.”
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that Johnson “tried to strike a very different tone” to his normal PMQ appearances, continuing that there were “no gags” and “no smirks” from the prime minister.
The “body language of his colleagues, including on front bench, showed how uneasy his party is”, she added. “Not sure the excuse that technically it wasn’t a party will soothe the anger among his MPs.”
The Sunday Times’s chief political commentator Tim Shipman tweeted that an apology by Johnson made his address to the Commons “a collector’s item”, adding that his “entire political credo is not to apologise”.
But he resembled “a man with his back to the wall”, he said. “What will matter is what the cabinet and the Tory MPs think. Johnson now has 72 hours to save his premiership.”
The Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman tweeted that Johnson was “floundering”, asking: “Is this really an apology that’s going to sound right to the country – and to Tory MPs?”
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, described the event as “utterly despicable”, adding: “You cannot put in place these rules, you cannot be the head of the government that is asking people to follow these rules, and then break those rules yourself.”
A further 13 Conservative MPs have also gone public with their anger over the alleged lockdown breach. Johnny Mercer, a former minister under Johnson, apologised, tweeting that the revelation was “humiliating” in response to a question posted by a constituent.
Caroline Nokes, a select committee chair, added that No. 10 had displayed a “don’t do as I do, do as I say” attitude.
Bob Blackman, a senior member of the 1922 Committee, said voters were “rightly furious”, adding: “I am clear that those who set the rules must abide by them or face the consequences.”
The PM’s woes have only intensified after two sources told The Times that he was “wandering round glad-handing people” during the event attended by Carrie Johnson and Henry Newman, then an adviser to Michael Gove and now a senior No. 10 figure.
“One senior official at the event joked about the risk of surveillance by drones”, sources added, “which was viewed as a tacit admission that the rules were being breached”.
Another source said that there had been complaints from No. 10 staff following the party as “they’d had to clean up the morning after”. The source added: “They weren’t happy.”
A cabinet minister told the paper that “it’s not terminal yet”, suggesting that “there’s still room for humility and a heartfelt apology”, but adding: “We’re fucked unless we resolve it. Everyone knows this thing happened; nobody is disputing that.
“The row has moved on from whether the party took place to questions around denial and prevarication. PMQs will be agonising,” the paper said. “We fucked up. It doesn’t have to be terminal if he’s prepared to take his medicine. But it’s unquestionably done harm.”
How No. 10 negotiates the scandal has been further complicated by a report by the BBC political correspondent Iain Watson that revealed “senior Downing Street political staff had to intervene during the first half of 2021 to prevent events at No. 10”.
Sources told Watson that the events “would have taken place during the roadmap out of lockdown, which saw restrictions gradually lifted”.
Former No. 10 insiders said that the drinks organised by the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, “set a precedent”, namely that “if a senior civil servant such as Reynolds could give approval to this event, it was unsurprising that more junior staff felt it was acceptable to hold a Christmas party later that year”.
Allegations in The Independent that Downing Street staff were instructed to “clean up” their phones to remove evidence of events taking place have also added fuel to the fire.
Two sources claimed that a senior member of Johnson’s No. 10 team told them it would be a “good idea” to delete messages that suggested they were aware of anything that could “look like a party”.
One said they were “told to clean up their phone just in case” they had to hand it in to the ongoing investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray. A second said they were “being leant on” to “get rid of anything that could look bad”.
According to one No. 10 adviser, the events were organised due to a prevailing “bunker mentality” among those surrounding Johnson during the pandemic.
They told The Times that “there was a sense that we had lashed ourselves to the mast while the rest of the civil service had gone home.
“The work people were doing in No. 10 was of a high degree of importance and couldn’t be done remotely. Therefore what difference did it make given that everyone was cooped up in a decrepit 18th-century building where social distancing was impossible?
“Looking back on it we were deeply mistaken.”
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