The Prime Minister is facing increasing hostility from his own party in light of claims Downing Street staff broke lockdown rules by holding a Christmas gathering last year.
Several Tory backbenchers, along with the former Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson have expressed concerns over the affair – arguing that the allegations, if true, are “unacceptable” and “indefensible”.
Boris Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that he was “furious” at footage showing aides joking about festive celebrations in December 2020, and apologised “unreservedly” for the offence caused.
But he insisted he had been repeatedly assured “there was no party and no Covid rules were broken”.
Mr Johnson said he had asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case “to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible – and it goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved”.
He has since been hit with a stinging rebuke from Ms Davidson, with which she branded the promise of an investigation after a week of denial as “pathetic”, and claimed “colleagues are furious at this, too”.
None of this is remotely defensible. Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones.
Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools. 1/2
— Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonPC) December 8, 2021
Ms Davidson tweeted: “None of this is remotely defensible. Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones.
“Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools.
“And today’s ‘we’ll investigate what we’ve spent a week saying didn’t happen and discipline staff for rules we continue to say weren’t broken’ was pathetic. As a Tory, I was brought up to believe in playing with a straight bat. Believe me, colleagues are furious at this, too.”
The Prime Minister is also fielding criticism from several Tory backbenchers.
Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet in Kent, said it was worrying that Mr Johnson did not appear to know what was happening in Downing Street.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme that the PM had been “blindsided by information he was given” regarding the alleged party.
“It’s worrying, isn’t it, that the man at the top of the tree doesn’t appear to know what’s going on in his own building two floors below him – I find that of concern,” he said.
He added: “I don’t find it particularly attractive that the Prime Minister doesn’t know what’s going on in No 10 Downing Street, or doesn’t ask the right questions of his senior staff to find out what’s been going on in Downing Street, if something wrong has been going on. That’s worrying in itself.”
But in Mr Johnson’s defence, Sir Charles Walker MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, said he did not think the Prime Minister could be expected to “patrol every corridor and room in No 10”.
Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton, said in a statement issued on Twitter that it had “become clear” that rules may have been broken.
He said this was “clearly unacceptable” and that Mr Johnson was “absolutely right to apologise” and to ask the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the matter.
Duncan Baker, MP for North Norfolk, also said the leaked footage gave him “great concern” – and that, if there had been a party in No 10, that would be indefensible.
“Like many constituents, I am extremely upset at the lack of respect and dignity that people working in the very heart of Government, who were supposedly leading the country, showed,” he said.
“It signals such an utter lack of responsibility, whilst people throughout the country were abiding by the rules and sacrificing so much. I have previously spoken out against breaches of the rules and integrity. Trust in public life matters.
“Whilst we are still told there was no Christmas party, the leaked press studio footage gives me great concern.”
He added: “There has been no proper explanation, or any effort to show understanding to how this sort of behaviour lacks empathy to how many people feel. I welcome an investigation; we need a clear answer on what went on once and for all.
“If there was a Christmas Party in Downing Street, that is indefensible and I expect full accountability to follow.”
Like many constituents, I am extremely upset at the lack of respect and dignity that people working in the very heart of government, who were supposedly leading the country, showed. My views here: https://t.co/mk1RTsal0H pic.twitter.com/82WYMVyO0r
— Duncan Baker (@duncancbaker) December 8, 2021
Asked for her position on the matter on Wednesday morning, Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot in Devon, said on Twitter: “Clearly there were rules in place that most of us were diligently following (despite how difficult they were) and they decided to break them.
“It’s not on and, at the very least, they should admit their blatant error and apologise for breaking the rules they imposed on society.”
Clearly there were rules in place that most of us were diligently following (despite how difficult they were) and they decided to break them. It's not on and, at the very least, they should admit their blatant error and apologise for breaking the rules they imposed on society.
— Anne Marie Morris MP (@AnneMarieMorris) December 8, 2021
And the Tory peer and former Conservative Party chairwoman, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, said all those present at any party should quit.
Meanwhile, at Prime Minister’s Questions, senior Tory William Wragg challenged Mr Johnson about reports that a Cabinet meeting and press conference were planned “to initiate Covid winter Plan B”.
The chairman of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee told the Prime Minister: “Very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic.”
In the footage obtained by ITV News that has sparked furore from across the political spectrum, the PM’s then-spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, are seen to be joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party.
Mr Oldfield can be heard asking Ms Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
Ms Stratton replied “I went home”, before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.
During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently abandoned plan for Ms Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.
Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting… and it was not socially distanced.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers were reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
A former Tory minister told the PA news agency that he expected the Cabinet Secretary’s probe into what occurred on December 18 to be able to delve into Downing Street surveillance footage.
“Like Watergate, the evidence – in this case CCTV and who was on the invite list that the police hold at the No 10 gate – will be out there,” he said.
In a sign of further potential difficulties for Mr Johnson, his former aide Dominic Cummings – who has become a prominent critic – suggested Mr Case’s investigation should look at parties in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat.
Mr Cummings tweeted: “Will the CABSEC also be asked to investigate the *flat* party on Fri 13 Nov, the other flat parties, & the flat’s ‘bubble’ policy…?”
Will the CABSEC also be asked to investigate the *flat* party on Fri 13 Nov, the other flat parties, & the flat's 'bubble' policy...?
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) December 8, 2021
Downing Street said Mr Case’s investigation would only look at events related to the December 18 event, rather than the November 13 “flat party” Mr Cummings referred to.