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Vulnerable Boris Johnson Clings On After "Lashing Out" In His Response To First Sue Gray Drop

Vulnerable Boris Johnson Clings On After 'Lashing Out' In His Response To First Sue Gray Drop

(Alamy)

5 min read

Boris Johnson has infuriated Conservative MPs who have criticised the tone of his response to an update on Sue Gray’s investigation into Downing Street parties in the Commons this afternoon.

Tory MPs have told PoliticsHome that while it is still unlikely enough letters will be sent in to the 1922 backbench committee chair Sir Graham Brady to trigger a no confidence vote this week, the Prime Minister has ended the day in a vulnerable position.

"Quite simply for a filleted report, it's pretty damning,” veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale told PoliticsHome.

“This isn't about parties, it's always been about ethics, the ethics of the culture of Downing Street and the ethics of the Prime Minister.

“The bottom line is the Prime Minister has misled the House from the despatch box.”

Gray’s highly anticipated “update” on her investigation into parties and party culture in Downing Street, which was published on Monday afternoon, found that get-togethers held at Number 10 during lockdown represented "failures of leadership and judgement" by both Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

The twelve-page document also revealed that a "gathering" at Johnson's Downing Street flat on 13 November 2020 is one of 12 events being investigated by the Met Police.

"At times it seems there was too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings," the report read.

An hour after it was published, in an address to the Commons, Johnson said he would “learn” from Gray’s findings and promised a shake-up of the Downing Street operation.

But the pledge did not seem to placate the concerns of many in his party, one of whom told PoliticsHome his battle for survival “is only going to get worse”.

On Tuesday evening Guildford MP Angela Richardson became the first member of government to resign over the ‘partygate’ scandal engulfing Johnson.

In a message to constituents posted to her Facebook page, the former PPS to Michael Gove said she has “stepped back” from her governmental responsibilities “to invest more of my time realising the campaigns that I am working on for the people of Guilford”.

“In so doing, I will have more freedom to fulfil my promise to you as I hold the government to account, as a critical friend,” she added.

MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome said Johnson’s performance at the dispatch box on Tuesday left him in a worse position with the parliamentary party by the end of the day.

Johnson was severely criticised by members across the House, notably including former Prime Minister Theresa May, who launched a scathing attack on her successor.  

"Either my right honourable friend had not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant and others around him, or didn’t think they applied to Number 10. Which was it?,” she asked.

“I chatted to colleagues, and we all said it was absolutely awful,” one former minister told PoliticsHome.

“The defiance, the lashing out at people he doesn’t like – the tone was just all wrong,” he added.

Multiple Tory MPs pointed to Johnson blaming Labour leader Keir Starmer for a failure to prosecute sex offender Jimmy Savile as an example of destructive and distasteful rhetoric that further inflamed tensions in the party. While Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution service at the time, the decision was made not to prosecute Savile as a result of poor handling of evidence by police. 

“You know it’s last chance saloon when you have to bring up Jimmy Savile,” a Tory insider close to the shadow whipping operation told PoliticsHome.  

“It was just the same old bluster,” another former minister said, who described Johnson’s Savile jibe as “very ill judged”.

The same MP stressed that while Gray’s report was majorly redacted, the fact that twelve parties are being investigated by the police pointed to serious allegations facing the Prime Minister.

"The direction of travel from this report is only going to get worse,” they told PoliticsHome.

But despite palpable anger at Johnson’s performance at the dispatch box, allies of the Prime Minister told PoliticsHome that they remain confident the he will make it through the current crisis.

One PPS even went so far as to describe Gray’s update as “good for the Prime Minister”.

“[It] points to cultural issues in Number 10 and says line management structures and who’s accountable to who is a mess and points out staff had worked really hard in tough times,” they said. “It’s not a two up two down house.”

Echoing this sentiment, a ‘red wall’ MP elected in 2019 told PoliticsHome that today's update from Gray means “it’s time to move on”.

“I think he’s right to apologise for some of the issues and some of the work culture that’s there, not just in Number 10 but in the Cabinet Office and Whitehall,” the MP said.

“The message I’m getting from constituents is that they want to crack on with the issues that matter to them away from this yaboo politics in Westminster.

On Tuesday evening Conservative MPs met with the Prime Minister in Parliament where he apologised again and promised to "overhaul the Downing Street operation".

Some buoyed MPs leaving the "punchy" meeting of the 1922 committee described feeling satisfied that Johnson can rebuild trust and will unite the party as it moves on from partygate. 

"I'm happy that the Prime Minister is focusing on the issues people care about and the party needs to be focussing on real issues rather than cake," one MP said. 

Additional reporting by Adam Payne, Eleanor Langford and Kate Proctor

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