Boris Johnson is sitting on a “ticking timebomb” over new Partygate claims being examined by police, say senior Tories – warning that the controversy engulfing the former PM could damage the party’s re-election chances.
Conservative grandee Michael Heseltine said Mr Johnson was “painfully on the rack” after Cabinet Office officials referred him to Scotland Yard and Thames Valley Police over further possible lockdown violations at Chequers and No 10.
Writing in The Independent, Lord Heseltine said: “Never in my lifetime have I seen an ex-prime minister so nakedly and painfully on the rack to the extent that Boris Johnson is.”
MPs’ Partygate probe means he faces “the real possibility of being banned from the Commons for lying and potentially losing his seat”, the former deputy PM noted, adding: “There is now a ticking timebomb under him with legal threats and potential criminal proceedings.”
It comes as Cleo Watson, Mr Johnson’s former deputy chief of staff in Downing Street, told The Independent the latest Partygate claims could be the final blow for his political career.
“I think so,” said the former aide. “It’s my view that he’s making his money, he’s writing his books, he’s got a lovely new baby on the way, why would he want a further political career? But if he does want to, this is potentially the last nail in the coffin.”
In an excoriating attack, when asked what she would give the former prime minister out of 10 for morality, Ms Watson said: “Five.”
The latest row comes as:
- Tory MPs urged Mr Johnson to share photos of events at Chequers and No 10
- Nadine Dorries suggested his diaries of events may have the wrong names and dates
- It emerged Mr Johnson met Donald Trump for dinner in the US to discuss Ukraine
The storm circling the former Tory leader centres on allegations that up to a dozen potentially suspect gatherings were held during lockdown at Chequers and No 10 after new details were found in his official diaries and passed to police.
Mr Johnson – understood to be “furious” and “in despair” about the fresh questions – was said to be prepared to release a photo of a gathering with his elderly mother and sister for lunch in the No 10 garden in June 2020.
The former PM believed the image exonerated him, according to The Times, since five people were gathered and outdoor meetings in groups of six were allowed. But the newspaper said the photo showed family members close to each other, and decided not to release it.
Tory MPs are despondent over the latest revelations. One senior figure on the right – who had been a Boris supporter until recent months – told The Independent: “He’s being his own worst enemy by lashing out again. His days in politics are over. Deep down, I think he does know that.”
The Conservative said: “If he’s got photos with family, get them out there and let’s see what the problem is. It will only add to the damage to the party, of course because we [Tory MPs] still have to answer for him.”
One MP in the red wall added: “If he has photos from Chequers and No 10 of these events that he thinks are innocent he should get them out there, rather than let it drag on. This whole thing needn’t go on for months.”
There is now feverish speculation around which of Mr Johnson and wife Carrie’s closest associates might have been at the gatherings which raised the suspicion of officials.
One senior Tory MP who was at Chequers while some Covid curbs were still in place told The Independent it was a myth that Mr Johnson was “boozy” – although they did admit there was wine with lunch. This was served al fresco, in line with advice at the time.
Johnson ally Ms Dorries said the timing of the dossier handed to police “stinks to high heaven” – and claimed some of the diary entries might have been filled out incorrectly by junior aides.
Speaking on TalkTV, Ms Dorries said: “They are completed by junior civil servants in the private office and they are frequently wrong. They detail the wrong people, the wrong places, the wrong times, and the wrong dates even.”
The Johnson ally also revealed that following a long-distance, early-hours phone call with her friend – who has been in the US this week – she had a “strong impression” he has no plans for a comeback.
“Some in Westminster, what they fear more than anything is the return of Boris Johnson, and they will go to any lengths to ensure that they prevent that from happening as they let their imaginations run riot and lead them down the paths of devious intent,” said Ms Dorries.
But she conceded that she “got the strong impression that making a return is the last thing on his mind”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there were “questions now about why have these allegations not come out before”, despite the public being “fed up to the back teeth” with Mr Johnson and Partygate.
Lord Heseltine also warned that Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, demanded by the Covid public inquiry, could also be highly damaging given “his propensity for loose language, four-letter tirades and frivolity”.
The Tory peer said the current mess was “all part of the terrible historic mistake the Tories made which they need to purge and alter – to end Brexit”, adding: “This political car crash that is now engulfing Boris is damaging and divisive to our party.”
Mr Johnson’s team said in a statement to Politico that there was a “briefing campaign that is trying to deliberately manufacture false claims”.
Threatening former advisers, his team added: “This is being run by former advisers who are now willing to say anything about Boris in an attempt to discredit him, even if it is a total lie. These individuals should watch themselves carefully as there are revelations about their own conduct to be made.”
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said he met Mr Trump “to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the vital importance of Ukrainian victory”. The pair met in the US, where the former PM has been talking to Republicans this week.
Meanwhile, the chair of the Covid-19 inquiry is pushing the Cabinet Office to release Mr Johnson’s diary entries and his WhatsApp messages with 40 top figures relating to the No 10 parties.
Baroness Hallett is threatening the government officials with criminal sanctions if the content is not handed over by Tuesday.
Mr Johnson has reportedly been given until the end of next week by the cross-party privileges committee to say why he believes no rules were broken at fresh events being looked at by police.
It is understood that MPs think it is safe to proceed with their report on whether he lied to parliament – only delaying release “by a week or two”.
On Ms Watson’s comments, a spokesman for Mr Johnson declined to comment but said they wished her well.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies