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Boris Johnson pledges to ‘address underlying culture’ of lockdown parties in bid to save job

The prime minister will overhaul the way his top team works, says Tory party chair

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 17 January 2022 01:00 GMT
Boris Johnson is ‘very contrite’, a cabinet minister has said
Boris Johnson is ‘very contrite’, a cabinet minister has said (PA )

Boris Johnson is set to overhaul his Downing Street operation in a desperate attempt to “address the underlying culture” that led to lockdown boozing, a cabinet minister has said.

Tory party chair Oliver Dowden insisted on Sunday that the prime minister was “contrite” over allegations of rule-breaking, and suggested the PM would be making changes to his top team.

But opposition parties doubled down on criticism of the prime minister, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer saying that Mr Johnson had broken the law and then lied about it.

“I think he broke the law. I think he’s as good as admitted that he broke the law,” Sir Keir told the BBC.

“I know that the government’s holding position is ‘Let’s all wait for the Sue Gray report.’ But I think it’s pretty obvious what’s happened – this industrial-scale partying had been going on at Downing Street; not much of it is really denied – and I think that the public have made up their mind. I think the facts speak for themselves.”

He added: “I think the prime minister broke the law; I think he then lied about what had happened.”

There have been over a dozen different allegations of festivities in Downing Street while lockdown rules were in place – but no charges have yet been brought by the police.

Mr Johnson was last night accused of attending another gathering in December 2020, when a leaving do was held for former defence adviser Captain Steve Higham. According to The Mirror, Mr Johnson attended “for a few minutes” in which he gave a speech “to thank him for his service”.

The newspaper, which did not reveal the exact date of the leaving do but claimed it was in the run-up to Christmas, said a “small number of No 10 staff briefly said goodbye”.

It also emerged that Mr Johnson has now been questioned by Ms Gray ahead of the report being published and has shared with her what he knows, The Telegraph reported.

So far, six Tory MPs have publicly called on the prime minister to resign over the scandal, with others telling him he needs to up his game and reverse the polling slide. Yet more have warned that their inboxes are overflowing with emails from constituents who are livid at the revelations.

In order to trigger a leadership contest, 54 of Mr Johnson’s MPs must submit letters in private to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee. So far, three have said publicly that they have written to Sir Graham – Sir Roger Gale, the MP for Thanet North; Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives; and Andrew Bridgen, the member for North West Leicestershire – though it is rumoured that as many as 20 MPs may have done so.

The prime minister is said to be taking action to try to bring his party back onside.

The Independent reported earlier this week that Mr Johnson was set to try to save his own skin by sacking officials close to him, in a plan apparently named “Operation Save Big Dog”.

Details are now beginning to emerge of the planned cull of his inner circle, which is designed to restore both public and internal party confidence.

Martin Reynolds, who sent the “bring your own booze” invitation to No 10 colleagues, is expected to be forced out along with his deputy, according to The Sunday Times. The paper reports that No 10’s chief of staff may also have to go.

Mr Dowden told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “I can assure you the prime minister is both very contrite and deeply apologetic for what happened.

“But more importantly, he is determined to make sure that this can’t be allowed to happen, and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street. There were failings; we should have done better – much, much better.”

It has been suggested that No 10 staff may be banned from drinking on the job, amid revelations that they regularly held “wine-time Fridays” while lockdown regulations were in place.

But there is also pressure from within the party to change tack on policy, and perhaps chart a more right-wing course.

Lord Frost, who quit the cabinet last month over the political direction of the government, said changing the No 10 team was “necessary but not sufficient”.

“To get through this we need changes in machinery, so good decisions are taken and actually delivered [along with] changes in policy,” he said – indicating that he would support a switch to less ambitious action on climate change and more tax cuts.

But Will Tanner, a former senior official in the No 10 policy unit, poured cold water on Mr Johnson’s reported approach. He said it was “hard to see how losing the principal private secretary, deputy principal private secretary, chief of staff and director of communications simultaneously will improve the Downing Street operation – no matter who replaces them”.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that Mr Johnson was warned by “at least two people” that the May 2020 “bring your own booze” event amounted to a party and should be immediately cancelled.

But a No 10 spokesperson rejected the claims. Speaking on Sunday, they said: “It is untrue that the prime minister was warned about the event in advance.

“As he said earlier this week, he believed implicitly that this was a work event. He has apologised to the house and is committed to making a further statement once the investigation concludes.”

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