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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Boris Johnson: Ministers rally round PM as he faces calls to quit


Cabinet ministers have pledged their support for Boris Johnson, as he faces calls to resign after admitting attending a drinks party in lockdown.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister cancelled a trip to Lancashire because a family member tested positive for coronavirus.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, as well as other senior backbenchers, have urged him to resign.

Cabinet ministers, however, have urged MPs to wait for the outcome of an investigation into alleged Covid-rule violations at No. 10.

And Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed Mr Ross as a “lightweight”.

Mr Ross has written to the 1922 Committee, which oversees Tory leadership elections, to express his dissatisfaction with the prime minister.

If 54 or more of the party’s MPs vote in favour of Mr Johnson, a vote of confidence will be held, and if he loses, a leadership election will be held. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, does not reveal how many letters he has received until they have reached the threshold.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told BBC Breakfast that he “absolutely” supported Mr Johnson, adding, “You have to let these investigations get to the full details and full facts.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she supported the prime minister “100%,” while Chancellor Rishi Sunak said Mr Johnson was “right to apologise,” and he supported his call for “patience” while senior civil servant Sue Gray completed her investigation.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the Prime Minister had given a “very clear account” of what occurred, and Health Secretary Sajid Javid said “most people have accepted” the need to await Ms Gray’s findings.

Mr. Rees-Mogg stated in the Commons that a future full investigation into the pandemic would look into whether Covid restrictions were “proportionate” or “too harsh on people.”

“I think everyone understands, on all sides of the House, that people were following the rules, and these rules were very difficult to follow,” he added.

Mr Johnson’s planned visit to a vaccination clinic in Lancashire on Thursday has been cancelled, and he will follow official advice, including taking daily tests and limiting contact with other people, according to a Downing Street spokesperson.

Mr Johnson admitted during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that he had joined colleagues for drinks in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 for about 25 minutes to thank them for their efforts during the pandemic, but had “implicitly assumed that this was a work event.”

He apologised for how he handled the situation, saying he understood people’s “rage.”

Around 30 people attended the gathering, which was described in the invitation as “socially distanced,” and were invited to bring their own alcohol. Trestle tables were reportedly used to serve food such as sausage rolls and crisps.

The chancellor tweeted his support for Boris Johnson eight hours after the prime minister’s apology at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

And unlike other senior ministers, Rishi Sunak was not at Boris Johnson’s side in the Commons.

Some newspapers interpreted the timing and content of his message of support as lukewarm support for his boss and Downing Street neighbour.

According to sources close to the chancellor, the language he used about the report into lockdown-busting parties in Whitehall is nearly identical to messages posted by other cabinet ministers.

A look at his diary reveals a man who had a genuinely busy day, with a trip to Devon in the morning and a meeting with the prime minister in the evening, followed by more meetings with MPs concerned about energy bills.

Mr Sunak, on the other hand, is seen as one of the frontrunners to succeed Mr Johnson if and when he steps down, despite the fact that the chancellor has stated that he is not interested in the top job.

The chancellor’s colleagues may be irritated by the media’s obsession with this, but they’ll have to accept that a leadership candidate always attracts more rune-reading than a lower-profile cabinet minister.

And supporters of the prime minister have begun to put pressure on the chancellor to speak out on other major issues confronting the country.

“Do you have a problem with the cost of living? Wouldn’t you think that was one for your finance minister?” said one adviser to a Johnson supporter.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party have all called for the prime minister to resign, claiming he violated Covid rules.

“The prime minister is not fit to lick the boots of NHS staff in this country,” said shadow health secretary Wes Streeting in the Commons.

And Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to all cabinet members, asking if they attended any gatherings during the lockdown.

Conservatives reacted differently to Mr. Johnson’s statement and apology.

The prime minister’s position, according to William Wragg, a backbencher who chairs an influential select committee, is “untenable.”

Caroline Nokes, the chairwoman of another Commons committee, said Mr Johnson should resign because he is “damaging the entire Conservative brand.”

Former minister, who has previously criticised Mr Johnson’s leadership, told ITV’s Robert Peston: “Regrettably, he appears to be a liability. And I believe he will either leave now or in three years at a general election.”

However, Tory MP for Great Grimsby Lia Nici accused the Civil Service of attempting to “stitch up” the prime minister over Downing Street drinks.

She told BBC Radio Humberside that Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds – in whose name the invitations were sent out – should be investigated.

Timeline: The alleged government gatherings

The government is facing mounting pressure over several events that are alleged to have been held during lockdowns in 2020. Here is what we know about them and the restrictions in place at the time:

10 May 2020

Boris Johnson announced a plan to take the “first careful steps” out of the lockdown that began in March 2020. But he said people should continue to “obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them”.

Legal restrictions at the time said you could not leave your house without a reasonable excuse and government guidance was that you could meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor setting while exercising.

15 May 2020

A photo from May 2020 showed the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden. When asked about it, Boris Johnson said, “those people were at work talking about work”.

20 May 2020

About 100 people were invited by email to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on behalf of the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.

Witnesses told the BBC the PM and his wife were among about 30 people who attended.

Boris Johnson has confirmed he attended the event, saying he was there for 25 minutes and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.

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