Boris Johnson grilled on 'ridiculous' defence of May party
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Saying sorry to the Queen and voters and voters over drinking parties at Downing Street during Covid restrictions, Mr Johnson spoke as a gang of around 20 backbenchers who won seats in his 2019 election triumph met to discuss forcing a vote of no-confidence in him. Speculation about Mr Johnson’s future grew as a seventh MP was revealed to have sent a letter urging a leadership contest to heads of the Tories’ 1922 Committee.
Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, was named as having contacted chairman Sir Graham Brady ‑ several more MPs from the latest Commons intake are thought to be on the brink of sending in letters.
The scheming to dethrone the Prime Minister was tagged the “pork pie plot” at Westminster after Tory whips identified Alicia Kearns ‑ MP for Rutland and Melton, home of the pastry meat treat ‑ as one of the ringleaders.
Gary Sambrook, Birmingham Northfield MP, and Chris Loder (West Dorset) ‑ both 2019 arrivals ‑ were named as plotters.
Under Tory rules, 54 signatures would trigger a vote. Reports last night claimed more than 30 were in. But one unnamed Senior Conservative backbencher hinted they are confident of getting to 54 letters today.
The MP told the BBC: “I think we’ve done it, difficult to tell though. Lots of shift today. The Whips operation completely backfired. Colleagues now have a sense they aren’t alone.”
Details of the rebels ‑ mostly MPs in northern England seats ‑ emerged last night after Mr Johnson made an emotional public apology to the Queen and nation for “misjudgments” made on gatherings at No 10 during Covid curbs.
He said sorry 10 times in a TV interview but rejected allegations from ousted chief adviser Dominic Cummings that he ignored warnings a “bring your own booze” garden gathering broke the rules.
The PM’s allies were infuriated by the plotters, with one saying: “It’s pretty sickening. They were only elected because of him. Most of them are a load of nobodies.”
Meanwhile a downcast Mr Johnson, in his first official visit in a week, expressed regret over the leaving bash for civil servants at No 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral.
His head bowed in sorrow, he said he took “full responsibility” and apologised to the country.
A Savanta ComRes opinion poll showed nearly two thirds (65 percent) of voters say the party scandal has made them think worse of the Tories, including half of those who voted for them in 2019.
But the PM denied he ignored warnings on the garden gathering: “I can tell you categorically, categorically, that nobody told me and nobody said that this was something that was against the rules or was a breach of the Covid rules or we were doing something that wasn’t a work event because, frankly, I don’t think, I can’t imagine why on earth it would have gone ahead.”
On a visit to Finchley Memorial Hospital in north London, he faced press questions on Mr Cummings’ claim he lied over rule-breaking at No 10.
Apologising for two sessions hours before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, the Prime Minister said: “I deeply and bitterly regret that that happened.”
Officials had already given a formal apology to Buckingham Palace aides. The Queen had sat apart from her family as she mourned her husband in April 2020.
Mr Johnson, wearing a mask, continued: “I can only renew my apologies both to Her Majesty and to the country for misjudgments that were made, and for which I take full responsibility.
“But nobody told me. Nobody said to me this is an event that is against the rules. My memory of this event, as I’ve said, is going out into the garden for about 25 minutes for what I implicitly thought was a work event and talking to staff, thanking staff, I can’t remember exactly how many ‑ but for about 25 minutes I was there. I then went back to my office.
“I do humbly apologise to people for misjudgments that were made. But that is the very, very best of my recollection.”
Asked if he could survive the row, Mr Johnson said: “I understand why people feel as strongly as they do about this issue. I repeat my apologies for what happened. I’m heartily, heartily sorry.”
He urged critics including Tory MPs encouraging him to resign to await a Cabinet Office probe by top civil servant Sue Gray:
“I repeat my deep apologies to people for mistakes that may have been made on my watch. But I think people do need to wait and see the conclusion of the report, and I will draw the necessary consequences and conclusions but then come back to the House.”
Ms Gray is likely to quiz Mr Cummings and all witnesses. Mr Cummings says he and others are ready to “swear under oath” the PM was advised to stop the bash.
Jeremy Hunt said he still has leadership ambitions. The ex-health secretary, beaten by Mr Johnson in 2019, told The House magazine: “It would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring.” Mr Cummings said it was “code for leadership contest is imminent”.
But Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Mr Cummings’ claims were “nonsense”.
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