Boris Johnson was forced into a humiliating apology in the House of Commons after a damning report into allegations of lockdown-busting parties blasted “failures of leadership and judgement” at 10 Downing Street.
The heavily abridged report by senior civil servant Sue Gray revealed that the Metropolitan Police are conducting a criminal investigation into 12 separate events in No 10 and other government departments, including at least three believed to have been attended by the prime minister.
It stated that some of gatherings represented “a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time”.
Sir Keir Starmer branded the PM a “man without shame” as Mr Johnson brushed off demands for his resignation and promised to “fix” the problem with a shake-up of No 10 staff and a review of codes of conduct for civil servants and advisers.
Tory MP Angela Richardson announced she had quit her job as parliamentary private secretary to cabinet minister Michael Gove, citing “deep disappointment” with Johnson’s handling of the scandal. And a minister told The Independent he was “considering his position” after the PM’s disappointing response.
A snap poll by Opinium found 64 per cent of voters think Tory MPs should remove Johnson through a confidence vote, 83 per cent believe he broke lockdown rules and 75 per cent think he is not telling the truth.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford was ejected from the Commons for refusing to retract his use of the word “liar” to describe Johnson. And Tory former chief whip Andrew Mitchell told the PM he no longer had his support.
Tory MP Aaron Bell – a member of the red wall group of Conservatives in traditionally Labour seats in the Midlands and north – asked if the PM regarded him as “a fool” for obeying social distancing rules at his grandmother’s funeral.
But there was no immediate sign of the flood of confidence letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, which would trigger a vote on Johnson’s future as Tory leader if they pass the threshold of 54.
Mr Johnson was subjected to a withering putdown in the Commons by predecessor Theresa May, who demanded to know if he had failed to understand the rules which he imposed on the country or whether he thought they did not apply to him.
And he was forced into a hasty U-turn after MPs responded with outrage to his suggestion that Ms Gray’s full report might never be published. After initially saying the PM would consider whether to release it following the completion of the Met investigation, Downing Street issued a statement to say it would be published in full.
The 12-page “update” released by the senior civil servant today contained none of the extensive factual information which she has gathered from interviews with more than 70 people, as well as analysis of emails, WhatsApp and text messages, photographs and Downing Street entry logs.
Police said they had received more than 300 photos and 500 pages of information, but Ms Gray said it was impossible for her to produce a “meaningful” report while Scotland Yard imposes limits on what she can say about the most serious alleged offences.
Instead, her report gave a scathing assessment of the culture inside government departments which saw alcohol-fuelled gatherings of staff at a time when members of the public faced fines for meetings outside their households
These included the ”bring your own booze” party on 20 May 2020 when Mr Johnson joined around 40 No 10 staff to drink alcohol and eat picnic food from trestle tables in the Downing Street rose garden, as well as his birthday celebrations with cake in the cabinet room and an alleged party in the PM’s flat on the evening of the resignation of former aide Dominic Cummings on 13 November 2020.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson refused to withdraw his previous statement to parliament that the 13 November event did not take place, but his press secretary later said that he “stands by” his earlier comment.
The Gray report stated: “At times it seems there was too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public.
“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.”
And she concluded: “A number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did.”
Sir Keir Starmer said that the report had shown Mr Johnson to be “unfit for office” and called on him to step down.
Citing Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ministers cannot “bob and weave and duck” around the laws they make, he said Tory MPs had a “duty” to remove Johnson from No 10.
“They can go on degrading themselves, eroding trust in politics and insulting the sacrifice of the British public,” said Starmer. “They can heap their reputations, the reputation of their party, and the reputation of this country, on the bonfire that is his leadership.
“Or they can spare the country from a prime minister totally unworthy of his responsibilities.
“It is only they who can end this farce. The eyes of the country are upon them. They will be judged on the decisions they take now.”
Insisting that he would show his government could be trusted, Mr Johnson announced plans to reshape No 10 as an Office of the Prime Minister led by a permanent secretary, as well as to enforce codes of conduct for civil servants and special advisers more stringently.
He attempted to kick off a fightback with a behind-closed-doors address to the Tory parliamentary party which one MP described as “barnstorming”. Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said he had not heard any calls for Johnson to go, telling reporters the PM had “managed to maintain the support of the party pretty much throughout”.
The mood among officials at the Cabinet Office and No 10 was grim, with one saying they were preparing for a week of “shuffle and slaughter”.
Three sources told The Independent that the report’s trimmed state had made it easier for the prime minister to blame staff and officials.
The Cabinet Office does not reveal details of individual disciplinary action against government employees. However, The Independent understands that steps could be taken to reprimand or punish staff found to be at fault by the report immediately. But in some cases, this may not be possible until the police have completed their separate investigation.