PM faces pressure from own side as Covid party row claims scalp of top aide

PM faces pressure from own side as Covid party row claims scalp of top aide
‘None of this is remotely defensible’: Tories vent anger at bungled handling of allegations

Boris Johnson was tonight facing pressure from within his own party over his bungled handling of allegations of a lockdown-breaching party at 10 Downing Street, as the crisis gripping his government forced the resignation of a top aide.

In a bid to draw a line under the debacle, the prime minister ordered an inquiry by his most senior civil servant into the events of 18 December, when up to 50 aides are reported to have enjoyed alcohol, food and a secret Santa at a time when London was under strict Tier 3 controls barring most indoor gatherings.

Senior Tories warned that the blow to public trust in the government from the scandal could hit compliance with new Plan B coronavirus restrictions being imposed in response to the rapid rise of the omicron variant of the disease in the UK.

The leader of Conservatives in Scotland, Douglas Ross, suggested that Mr Johnson may have to quit as prime minister if it is proved that he misled parliament over what he knew about the event.

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty made clear his concern at the prospect of waning public respect for the rules, telling a Downing Street press conference: “We all know people get very angry, including colleagues and friends, when they feel that it’s unfair.”

But he said people must “separate” their anger from the question of what actions need to be taken  to fight off the threat from omicron.

After a week of brushing aside questions with a denial that rules had been breached, Mr Johnson was forced into a public apology on Wednesday for a video showing No 10 aides joking about the party four days after it is believed to have taken place.

Within hours of the PM saying he was “sickened and furious” about the footage – which went viral on social media after being broadcast by ITV and was quickly lampooned by Ant and Dec on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity – his former press secretary Allegra Stratton became the first victim of the row by quitting her job as Cop26 climate change spokesperson.

A tearful Ms Stratton told TV cameras outside her London home that she wanted to offer her “profound apologies” for comments which appeared to make light of rules that people across the country were obeying.

“That was never my intention,” she said. “I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days… To all of you who lost loved ones, who endured intolerable loneliness and who struggled with your businesses, I’m truly sorry.”

In the Commons, Mr Johnson was barracked by Labour MPs as he apologised “unreservedly” for the clip, but refused to confirm whether or not a party had taken place.

“I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken,” said the PM.

“I have asked the cabinet secretary (Simon Case) to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible and it goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”

But Sir Keir Starmer said an inquiry was unnecessary. “It is obvious was happened,” he told MPs. “Ant and Dec are ahead of the prime minister on this. The prime minister has been caught red-handed. Why doesn’t he end the investigation right now by just admitting it?”

The Labour leader – who contrasted scenes at Downing Street with the leadership shown by the Queen mourning the Duke of Edinburgh alone – secured a pledge from the PM that any information unearthed by Mr Case would be passed on to police.

But Scotland Yard later announced it would not be launching an inquiry, because of “absence of evidence” and in line with its policy not to conduct retrospective investigations of historical Covid regulation breaches.

Meanwhile, questions were asked over Mr Johnson’s decision to order the cabinet secretary to look into the events of 18 December only, and not to consider reports of earlier gatherings at No 10 on 13 and 27 November which the PM is alleged to have attended.

The civil service head of the Department for Education said she expected Mr Case to consider a Christmas party hosted for staff by then education secretary Gavin Williamson last December, suggesting that the probe may be wider than indicated by the PM.

And under intense questioning in a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson eventually conceded that Mr Case would “get to the bottom of what he thinks is appropriate and right”.

No deadline has been set for the mandarin’s report, though Mr Johnson said he hoped it would be published “as soon as possible”.

The scale of Tory anger at Westminster about the PM’s failure over a week to kill off the story was reflected in backbencher William Wragg’s accusation that Mr Johnson’s announcement of new coronavirus restrictions would now be viewed by voters as a “diversionary tactic”.

Tory MP Philip Davies asked health secretary Sajid Javid for “any reason at all why I shouldn’t tell my constituents to treat these rules in exactly the same way that No 10 Downing Street treated last year’s rules?”

Waveney MP Peter Aldous said the video “gives the impression there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us”, in what appeared like a “rerun of the Dominic Cummings saga” which would probably make it impossible to enforce new Covid restrictions.

Former minister Stephen Hammond said it did not appear that Ms Stratton was “the only person culpable” in the scandal.

Mr Ross told BBC News he still has confidence in the PM, but said it would be “completely unacceptable” if he was found to have misled parliament on the issue.

“If the prime minister knew about this party last December, knew about this party last week, and was still denying it, then that is the most serious allegation,” he said.

“No one should continue in their post if they mislead parliament in that way.”

His predecessor as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson dismissed Mr Johnson’s announcement of an inquiry as “pathetic”.

“None of this is remotely defensible,” she said. “Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones. Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools.

“As a Tory, I was brought up to believe in playing with a straight bat. Believe me, colleagues are furious at this, too.”

An opinion poll by Savanta ComRes found that 54 per cent of voters – including 33 per cent who backed Tories in the 2019 election – think Mr Johnson should quit over the affair.

Campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said that Ms Stratton’s resignation should not be the end of the matter.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that what came out last night happened in the prime minister’s house and it is part of a culture he is responsible for,” the group said in a statement.

“The buck stops with him.”