Members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet have launched a public defence of their leader amid mounting speculation about his political future.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Sky News that the prime minister would still be able to win the next general election after Johnson “rightly” apologised in the Commons yesterday for breaching Covid-19 lockdown rules. But the Daily Mail reported that “the PM’s cabinet were ordered to publicly back him”.
More than 20 ministers, including Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Communities Secretary Michael Gove, “were dispatched to the airwaves and social media to publicly support the PM after his statement to the Commons failed to quell anger among Tory backbenchers”, the paper continued.
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The so-called “Operation Save Boris” effort to prop up their “under-fire boss” followed allegations that his apology for attending a drinks party in the No. 10 garden during lockdown in May 2020 was “half-hearted”.
While Johnson’s top team have rallied behind him following a bruising Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) appearance, the Tory boss is facing calls from senior members of his party to resign ahead of the publication of the findings of an investigation led by senior civil servant Sue Grey.
The MPs urging him to go include William Wragg, Caroline Nokes and Roger Gale. Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross also said Johnson should call time, after having “difficult conversations” with him following PMQs.
“He is the prime minister,” Ross said. “It is his government that put these rules in place, and he has to be held to account for his actions.”
Wragg, vice-chair of the powerful 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, called the PM’s position “untenable”. The MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it should not “be left to the findings of a civil servant to determine the future of the prime minister and indeed who governs this country”.
Nokes told ITV’s Robert Peston that Johnson was “damaging the entire Conservative brand”, adding: “Regretfully, he looks like a liability. And I think he either goes now, or he goes in three years' time at a general election.”
But Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the calls for Johnson’s resignation. During an appearance on BBC Newsnight, Rees-Mogg argued that the Tory rebels were “people who are always unhappy”, and described Ross as “quite a lightweight figure”.
MP Andrew Percy shot back that “as someone who apparently loves the union”, Rees-Mogg’s “personal attack” on the Scottish Tory leader was “a gift to the petty nationalists in the SNP who want to break this country up”.
This morning’s papers were no less forgiving of the PM than his senior backbenchers. The Daily Mirror labelled Johnson a “disgrace”, and said: “First, Johnson said no rules were broken … then he said he didn’t know about any parties… now he admits he was at one of them … but didn’t realise it was a party.”
As Johnson’s cabinet allies leapt to his defence, one notable exception was the “tepid support” offered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the Daily Mail reported.
The “potential successor as Tory leader” avoided yesterday’s “stormy” PMQs “by travelling more than 200 miles from London to Devon”, said the paper. And Sunak waited until the evening to publicly comment on the row, tweeting: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”
That the chancellor chose to continue with his Devon engagement also reportedly “raised eyebrows” and prompted suggestions that he may have seen the writing on the wall for his Downing Street neighbour.
Prior to Johnson’s brutal PMQs appearance, an unnamed cabinet minister told The Times that the allegations against him were “not terminal yet”, adding: “There’s still room for humility and a heartfelt apology.”
But following the PM’s Commons apology, a “senior Tory MP” texted the Financial Times’ Whitehall editor Sebastian Payne saying: “I think he’s made it worse.”
“He admitted he was present and tried to pass it off as a work party,” the MP added. “Won’t wash.”
The onslaught came after “the Tories fell to their lowest poll rating against Labour in almost a decade”, The Times reported. YouGov polling of 1,666 voters for the paper gave Keir Starmer’s party a ten-point lead over the Tories – the opposition’s biggest lead since December 2013.
And six in ten of the voters quizzed for the poll – conducted before Johnson’s apology – said the PM should resign. A total of 38% of those who voted Tory at the last election said he should quit.
Almost eight in ten (78%) did not believe the PM had been honest in his answers to questions about the alleged parties, including 63% of Conservative voters.
“The prime minister’s admission and apology in the Commons likely bought him a little time,” said BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg. “But for many on his own side, Johnson has already lost the benefit of the doubt.
“Growing numbers of his own MPs want him out, discussing frantically how and when his exit could take place.”
With a host of ambitious Tories lining up to take his place in No. 10, many believe that Starmer’s PMQs prediction that “the party’s over” for Johnson will prove to be correct.
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