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Cabinet Ministers Double Down On Defending Boris Johnson After His Leadership Is Bruised By Party Scandal

Boris Johnson

4 min read

Cabinet ministers are circling to defend Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister faces calls from some of his own MPs to resign over the 20 May Downing Street garden party.

On Wednesday Johnson issued an apology to parliament for his attendance at the Downing Street party during the first major Covid lockdown, when social mixing was prohibited by law, insisting he "implicitly" believed it was a work event. 

Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland, this morning said he could "absolutely see the logic" of why Johnson attended the lockdown-breaching event of over 40 people, which took place while individuals were limited to meetings with just one person from another household.

"It's difficult to explain but it's the reality of how Downing Street works," Lewis told Sky News.

"The garden is actually an integral part of Downing Street. I absolutely can see the logic in the Prime Minister going outside to talk to staff who had been working together and focused on Covid all day and to say thanks. He rightly said that in hindsight it's not something he would do."

Nadhim Zahawi, the Secretary of State for Education, in an interview with ITV last night attempted to defend Johnson's attendance at the party, which his Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds organised so they could enjoy "the lovely weather," as a way of "motivating his team". In his email to staff, Reynolds encouraged attendees to "bring your own booze". 

Following Wednesday's Commons statement, nearly all of Johnson's Cabinet tweeted messages backing him after a damaging day which saw the Prime Minister infuriate many of his own MPs with a "half-arsed" apology for attending the "BYOB" garden party last year.

Up to now, four Tory MPs have gone as far as publicly calling for the Johnson to quit: the party's Scottish leader Douglas Ross, William Wragg, Roger Gale, and Caroline Nokes. Many others have publicly and anonymously expressed dismay and fury with Johnson's performance on Wednesday.

The message put out by senior ministers is that Johnson was right to apologise yesterday and that people should wait until senior Whitehall figure Sue Gray publishes the findings of her investigation into the 20 May party and other allegations of lockdown-breaching events revealed in recent weeks.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is tipped to launch a bid to succeed Johnson if he is ousted, tweeted: "The Prime Minister is delivering for Britain – from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth. I stand behind the Prime Minister 100% as he takes our country forward."

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, agreed with Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries that Johnson was "right to apologise" and "the inquiry should now be allowed to do its work and establish the full facts of what happened".

Home Secretary Priti Patel messaged Conservative MPs urging them to get behind Johnson, saying he had "given his heartfelt apologies and taken responsibility for what has happened".

While Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is seen as the front runner to replace Johnson, tweeted a message of support, it did not appear to endorse the Prime Minister's leadership quite as explicitly as those by his colleagues. 

"The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry," Sunak posted.

Stephen Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, posted a similarly-worded tweet.

In his interview this morning, Northern Ireland Secretary Lewis said that despite the growing crisis facing Johnson, he would take the Conservatives into the next general election and win it.

However, a YouGov poll published last night put the party 10% behind Labour — the biggest lead for Labour since 2013. The survey was conducted before Prime Minister's Questions, which saw Johnson receive several calls to resign and a bruising line of questioning from Keir Starmer.

A Tory party source told PolitcsHome that the mood yesterday among Conservatives elected in 2019 was “dark and subdued” with many feeling that they will lose their seats at the next election.

But while Johnson may have gotten through Wednesday without a full revolt from the Conservative party, his week does not seem to have improved. On Thursday morning Downing Street announced that Johnson had cancelled an event in Lancashire after a family member had tested positive for Covid. 

"He will follow the guidance for vaccinated close contacts, including daily testing and limiting contact with others," a spokesperson said. 

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