Boris Johnson was forced into a chaotic last-minute U-turn in his bid to block an MP-led inquiry into Partygate, according to reports.
With “just 13 minutes to go until MPs were due to debate lockdown-breaking parties” in No. 10, said The Telegraph’s associate editor Camilla Tominey, the government “unexpectedly” announced the dropping of an amendment aimed at delaying a vote on whether the prime minister should be investigated by a Commons committee.
And “instead of being whipped to defend their boss”, said The Mirror, Tory MPs were granted a free vote on the Labour motion – which passed unopposed yesterday.
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Johnson, who is currently on a two-day trade trip to India, appeared to have had “an attack of Delhi belly” over the plan to “thwart” the inquiry motion, said The Telegraph’s Tominey.
Speaking to reporters in Gandhinagar in the western state of Gujarat, the PM said: “I have absolutely nothing, frankly, to hide here. If that is what the Opposition wants to talk about, that is fine.”
Then came the “shock” of Tory MPs receiving a message from Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip, telling them that “following the prime minister’s remarks in India… he is happy for the Commons to decide on any referrals to the privileges committee, that we will no longer move our tabled amendment”.
The message from Pincher confirmed the issue would be decided by a “free vote”.
The Times said the change of plan came as the government was “facing a ‘revolt’ by junior ministers who threatened to resign rather than back him”. Johnson suffered a “revolt of middle ranks”, forcing him into a “humiliating climbdown”.
The “astonishing day in Westminster” means the “tussle looks set to continue while Scotland Yard pursues its investigation into Covid rule-breaking parties in No. 10”, The Guardian said. Police have so far issued 50 fixed penalty fines, including to Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Johnson “loyalists” have today rallied to “turn on Tory MPs who called for the prime minister to step down”, The Guardian reported.
Conor Burns, a Northern Ireland minister, said there was no question of Johnson resigning, claiming the PM would “rebuild the bonds of trust with the British people”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there are “colleagues across parliament who have never really supported the prime minister”.
“If the prime minister stepped off Westminster Bridge and walked on top of the water they would say he couldn’t swim,” he added. “That is a fact.”
But Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence select committee, has urged colleagues to “take matters into their own hands” and end the “absence of discipline, of focus and leadership” in No. 10.
“It’s causing such long-term damage to the party’s brand and that’s proving difficult to repair. Can it be repaired in time for the next general election?
“It’s beholden upon all Conservative MPs then to take matters into their own hands, and I think, as I say, I think this is where things will go, particularly as we have more bad news to follow.”
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