Tory civil war over ‘partygate’ rages as fifth MP submits letter of no-confidence in Boris Johnson

Downing Street insists prime minister enjoys ‘full support’ of cabinet

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 14 January 2022 01:07
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Divisions at the top of the government over the “partygate” row burst into the open today, with home secretary Priti Patel distancing herself from Rishi Sunak’s suggestion he was reserving judgement on Boris Johnson’s position until after the publication of an independent report.

Downing Street was forced to insist that the prime minister enjoys the “full support” of his cabinet, following a lukewarm message from the chancellor on Twitter in which he said Mr Johnson was right to apologise for joining a drinks event in the Downing Street garden during lockdown and called for “patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry”.

And the PM faced a growing backbench revolt, with at least five Tory MPs submitting letters of no-confidence in his leadership.

Asked whether she was following Mr Sunak in qualifying support until the report is out, Ms Patel told Sky News: “No. On the contrary. I have publicly supported the prime minister and actually you’re speaking to the home secretary who spends all my time day in day out supporting the prime minister.”

The chancellor sent out deputy Simon Clarke to damp down speculation over his stance. But the Treasury chief secretary’s own comments were guarded, as he said: “The chancellor was clear in his statement yesterday that he thinks it was right – as I do – that the prime minister should apologise and take responsibility for what happened in Downing Street, but also that this inquiry needs to be completed before we move forward. I think our positions are absolutely as one on that.”

Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, was the latest to publicly announce he had submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister on Thursday night. He was the fifth MP to say he had written to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, calling for a vote on the PM’s future as head of the party.

Mr Bridgen told BBC Newsnight: “With a heavy heart, I have written a letter to Sir Graham Brady indicating that I have no confidence in the Prime Minister and calling for a leadership election.”

Scotland Yard indicated it will wait to see if the Gray inquiry identifies evidence of potentially criminal behaviour before launching any investigation into the Downing Street parties.

Meanwhile, there was open conflict between Scottish Conservatives and the national leadership, as MSPs in Edinburgh rowed in behind leader Douglas Ross after he was branded a “lightweight” by Jacob Rees-Mogg for calling for Johnson’s resignation.

One senior Scottish Tory was quoted as saying that it was “inconceivable” that the PM could address the party’s annual conference in Scotland in March after the events of this week – something which all previous leaders have done.

Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, Mr Rees-Mogg appeared to offer a fresh excuse for the PM’s attendance at the “bring your own booze” gathering of around 40 staff on 20 May 2020, at a time when the public were told they could meet with no more than one person from another household outdoors.

Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that he had thought it was a work event. But Mr Rees-Mogg went further by suggesting that the upcoming Covid public inquiry should consider whether the restrictions in place at the time were “too hard on people”.

Politics expert Professor Sir John Curtice said Mr Rees-Mogg’s attack on Mr Ross would be “repeated endlessly north of the border” by the Tories’ opponents.

“Given the difficulties the Conservatives are now in, they are at risk of beginning to implode themselves as a result of the internal fighting within the party,” warned Prof Curtice.

And the SNP seized on the comments, claiming they show “disdain for Scotland”.

Kirsten Oswald, the party’s deputy leader at Westminster, said: “Not only is it deeply humiliating for Douglas Ross but it is a telling insight into the arrogant and dismissive attitude that the Tory government has towards Scotland as a whole.”

Scottish Tory MSP Liz Smith described the remark as “very ill-advised”, while Holyrood colleague Jamie Greene said Mr Rees-Mogg should “have a long lie down”. Mr Ross himself said: “Jacob Rees-Mogg, as is anyone, is entitled to their opinions. I don’t have to agree with them.”

After four Tory MPs – including Mr Ross – demanded Mr Johnson’s resignation on Wednesday, others indicated today that they were keeping their powder dry until they see the outcome of the inquiry being led by Ms Gray, which is now expected to conclude next week.

But senior backbencher Philip Dunne made clear there would be serious consequences for anyone criticised by the Whitehall mandarin.

Mr Dunne told Times Radio: “I think the prime minister was quite right to apologise yesterday, and I think it is right that we wait to see what the investigation from Sue Gray establishes.

“People will then have to suffer the consequences of whatever happens.”

He added: “It’s a very unsettling and unedifying period. These are serious allegations at a very serious time for the country and it is not comfortable.”

Downing Street denied that the PM’s apology on Wednesday was insincere, after reports that he told MPs privately the scandal was “not his fault and he’s bravely taking the blame for others”.

Responding to the claim, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Failing to take responsibility is in this prime minister’s DNA. He’ll always try to shift the blame, it’s always someone else’s fault. He’s not sorry, he’s sorry he got caught out.”

But the PM’s official spokesperson said: “These are unsourced claims. What is clear is what the prime minister said repeatedly in the house, which is his view.

“The prime minister made clear repeatedly that there were things we didn’t get right and he must take responsibility.”

The spokesperson played down the significance of the eight-hour wait following Mr Johnson’s apology before Mr Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss signalled their support.

Asked if Mr Johnson enjoyed the full support of his cabinet, the PM’s official spokesperson told a regular Westminster media briefing: “Yes, and you can see they continue to deliver on the public’s priorities.”

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