Boris Johnson’s acknowledgment that he attended a number 10 “bring your own drink” party during confinement led to infighting within the Conservative party and divisions among MPs over calls for the prime minister to resign.
Johnson partially apologized on Wednesday, insisting he believed the May 2020 evening meeting was a “job opportunity.”
But leaders of the Scottish Conservative Party and a handful of his own English MPs urged him to quit, with many warning that it was only a matter of time before he faced a leadership challenge.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, deepened internal Tory unrest on Wednesday night when he dismissed Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories, as “was quite a lightweight figure”.
Rees-Mogg told BBC News Night program that Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, “is a much more substantial and important figure in this”.
Andrew Percy, a Tory MP, slammed Rees-Mogg, saying: “As someone who apparently loves the Union, his personal attack on Douglas… Is a gift to the small nationalists in the SNP who want this country break up. ”
Ross has indicated his intention to submit a letter to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 backbench Tories committee, demanding a motion of no confidence in Johnson. Fifty-four such letters would cause a vote.
“He is the prime minister, it is his government that has put these rules in place, and he must be held accountable for his actions,” Ross said.
Caroline Nokes, one of the few English Tory MPs who publicly called for Johnson to resign, warned that the prime minister was “damaging the whole Conservative brand”.
She told ITV’s Robert Peston: “Unfortunately he looks like a burden. And I think he’s going either now or he’s going to a general election in three years’ time. “
The majority of cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove, Nadine Dorries and Sajid Javid, all stood in public behind Johnson after his apology.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak released a lukewarm tweet almost eight hours after Johnson’s statement in the House of Commons, offering only half-hearted support.
Sunak, a potential leadership rival, traveled more than 200 miles on a “long-planned” trip to north Devon on Wednesday, saying: “The PM was ready to apologize and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray conduct an investigation. “
Secretary of State Liz Truss, another potential leadership contender, said she stood “100 percent” behind Johnson.
Ministers called for patience while Gray, a senior government official investigating a series of rallies across Whitehall that allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions, completed her report.
Brandon Lewis, secretary of Northern Ireland, told the BBC on Thursday: “You have to allow these investigations to come to the full details and the full facts.”
Downing Street, meanwhile, announced that Johnson had been forced to withdraw from a planned visit to Lancashire “because of a family member who tested positive for coronavirus”.
“He will follow the guidelines for vaccinated close contacts, including daily testing and limiting contact with others,” a spokesman said.
In a further blow to Johnson’s authority, a poll for The times by YouGov gave Labor a 10-point lead over the Tories.
The poll was conducted before Johnson’s apology on questions from the prime minister on Wednesday, but gives Labor its biggest lead since December 2013.
In a tense exchange with Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson acknowledged that “millions of people across this country” had made “extraordinary sacrifices” during the lockout.
“I know the anger they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not properly followed by the people who make the rules,” he said.
Johnson tried to classify the event as a workshop. “When I went into that garden. . . to thank groups of staff before returning to my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I implicitly believed it was a job opportunity. ”