Oliver Dowden today insisted Boris Johnson should stay on as Prime Minister as he warned against a ‘divisive’ Tory leadership contest amid a growing backlash over the Number 10 party row.
The chairman of the Conservative Party said Mr Johnson ‘should of course remain as our Prime Minister’ despite calls from some of his own MPs for the premier to quit.
Mr Dowden said Mr Johnson ‘is committed to upping our game’ and ‘will address the kind of culture that has allowed’ Covid rule-busting events to take place in Whitehall.
Despite backing the PM and warning against a leadership contest, Mr Dowden did fire a broadside at Mr Johnson as he said the Tories ‘must do better’ because he can ‘hear people’s anger’.
His comments came as Mr Johnson is said to be planning a policy blitz and a cull of his inner circle as he looks to stabilise his premiership.
Ministers and Tory MPs have told the PM he must take ‘full responsibility’ for the findings of an official Cabinet Office probe into the Number 10 parties.
Mr Johnson is under growing pressure to right the ship after a new poll gave Labour a 10 point lead over the Tories – the party’s biggest advantage since 2013.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains under major pressure over the Number 10 party row as he plots to stabilise his premiership
Labour now has a 10 point lead over the Tories – its biggest advantage over the Conservatives since 2013
Carrie on partying! PM’s wife is accused of breaking social distancing rules while celebrating a friend’s engagement
Carrie Johnson has been accused of breaching social distancing rules when she celebrated a friend’s engagement just days after the public were warned to keep their distance from people they don’t live with.
Mrs Johnson, 33, the wife of Prime Minister Boris, had been at an engagement celebration for her friend Anna Pinder on September 17, 2020 at The Conduit, a private members’ club in Covent Garden, London.
Mrs Johnson, whose arm is wrapped around Ms Pinder in a picture that circulated online, appears to laugh with her friend as they pose for the snap on a sofa on the club’s outdoor terrace.
At the time, Brits had been warned that the country was on the cusp of a second wave of Covid infections.
Two metre social distancing guidance and the rule of six, meaning groups of more than half a dozen were restricted from meeting for anything other than work, education or weddings and funerals, were also still in place in September 2020.
Days before the happy friends were pictured smiling together on their night out, Mr Johnson hosted a press conference in which he reminded the British public they ‘should keep your distance from anyone you don’t live with’.
A spokeswoman for Mrs Johnson told the Telegraph she ‘regrets the momentary lapse’ of judgement that saw her openly hug her friend despite the guidance in place at the time.
Mr Dowden was asked during an interview on Sky News when he will tell the PM that the Conservative Party can no longer afford for him to be in charge.
He replied: ‘Well, I don’t agree with that analysis. I think Boris Johnson should of course remain as our Prime Minister and I will tell you why, it is precisely for the conversation we were just having now.
‘It was the Prime Minister that made that call about having the mass booster programme which has ensured we are getting through the worst of Omicron.
‘At the same time he made the call, despite the huge pressure, you may have remembered this, I recall it, around having a further lockdown in the face of that Omicron variant.
‘He made the right call and that has meant we have managed to have the most open economy in Europe and the most vaxxed economy in Europe, the two are linked together.
‘I think when it comes to those big calls he has made the right call.
‘Now of course I don’t diminish for a second that the kind of events we have seen were totally wrong, I was angered by them, my constituents were angered by them, the whole country was angered by them and it is absolutely right, as the Prime Minister has said, we will get to the bottom of them and I’ll tell you that when he responds to the House of Commons as he has committed to doing so he will make sure that we will address the kind of culture that has allowed that to happen in the first place.’
Asked what Mr Johnson could possibly say to improve the situation, Mr Dowden said: ‘It is important that we first get to the fact of everything that happened.
‘The Prime Minister has already apologised in respect of one event that happened. We need to get all the facts, that is what Sue Gray is doing through her report, we need to look at how that stacks up against the rules at the time and then the Prime Minister needs to respond to that.
‘Now, you won’t expect me to get into the detail of that response but what I can tell you from the many conversations I have had with the Prime Minister and what you saw from him in the House on Wednesday is that he is committed to upping our game.
‘We must improve the culture. We must do better. I hear people’s anger, I know it and we have got to respond to that.’
The battering Mr Johnson has received in recent weeks has prompted growing speculation of a potential leadership challenge, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak viewed as his most likely successors.
But Mr Dowden said now is not the time for a leadership contest as he said voters want the Government to focus on the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
‘I do not believe that the Prime Minister should resign for the reasons that we have discussed in this interview,’ he said.
‘I do though think it is essential that we address the kind of failings that allowed this to happen, that the prime Minister is held to account for what happened and addresses that in Parliament and that we also build on the kind of work that we have done with the vaccine rollout programme to address the subsequent challenges of Covid, whether that is clearing the NHS backlog or rebuilding the economy.
‘I think that that is the right approach rather than going through a period of divisive leadership contests which is not the sense that I get of what the British people want us to be be focusing on.
‘They want us to focus on the job at hand of dealing with Omicron and then the consequences of Covid.’
Mr Dowden’s comments about the need to ‘improve the culture’ in Number 10 will be seen as a hint that Mr Johnson is set to axe senior figures in his Downing Street operation.
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, has called for Mr Johnson to resign over the party row
Labour is piling the pressure on the Tories over the revelations. It has published a new campaign poster claiming the ‘Tories Aren’t Working’
Mr Johnson is alleged to have criticised his closest aides for failing to do enough to protect him over the party row.
He is said to have told them during meetings last week: ‘How has all this been allowed to happen? How has it come to this? How haven’t you sorted this out?’
A senior Government source told The Sunday Times that Mr Johnson had ‘made it clear he thought they had let him down’ and that the PM’s view ‘is that he is not to blame’.
One Cabinet minister told the newspaper that ‘heads have to roll’ in Number 10 because the operation is a ‘mess’ and a ‘disgrace’.
Mr Johnson is reportedly preparing to get rid of some members of his inner circle as he looks to survive the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into lockdown-busting parties in Number 10.
Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary who sent an email inviting staff to ‘bring your own booze’ to drinks in the Downing Street 10 garden during the first coronavirus lockdown, and his deputy Stuart Glassborow, are likely to be forced out, according to The Sunday Times.
Number 10 chief of staff Dan Rosenfield’s position could also be at risk but officials in Downing Street refused to be drawn on the reports of a staff shake-up when these were put to them.
Mr Johnson is also planning a wave of policy announcements in a bid to win back the support of voters and dampen anger.
The plan, dubbed ‘Operation Red Meat’, will reportedly include a workplace ban on drinking alcohol in Number 10.
Other pledges which are said to be on the table are lifting the remaining Covid curbs on January 26, freezing the BBC licence fee for two years to help on the cost of living and handing the military control of efforts to tackle migrant Channel crossings.
There will also be new proposals to address the NHS treatment backlog and renewed efforts on the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
The attempts to stabilise his premiership came as Tory anger over the party row continues to rise.
A senior Westminster figure told The Sunday Times that 35 letters of no confidence in Mr Johnson have now been submitted to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee.
Such a number is not too far away from the 54 which are required to trigger a no confidence vote.
Meanwhile, a sixth Tory MP has now publicly called for Mr Johnson to resign.
Former children’s minister Tim Loughton, in a post on Facebook, said Mr Johnson’s position had become ‘untenable’ and that his ‘resignation is the only way to bring this whole unfortunate episode to an end’.
Apologising for the ‘great hurt’ caused to his constituents by the party allegations, the East Worthing and Shoreham MP added: ‘Frankly the issue for me is not how many sausage rolls or glasses of prosecco the Prime Minister actually consumed.
‘The reason for my conclusion in calling for him to stand down is the way that he has handled the mounting revelations in the last few weeks.
‘Obfuscation, prevarication and evasion have been the order of the day when clarity, honesty and contrition was what was needed and what the British people deserve.’
Tory MPs are increasingly concerned by the ferocity of the public backlash triggered by the party row.
Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary and chairman of the Health Select Committee, has told how he has been receiving emails that are ‘red hot with anger’.
Gary Sambrook, an executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: ‘I would expect anyone who is found to have broken the law to seriously consider their position in Government, and that includes the Prime Minister.’
Minister Chloe Smith said of the inquiry: ‘I think it is right for the Prime Minister to take full responsibility for whatever it brings.’
One minister told The Sunday Telegraph that the situation currently is ‘not absolutely fatal’ for Mr Johnson ‘but it is not far off’.
It came as a new poll gave Labour a 10 point lead over the Tories – the party’s biggest advantage since 2013.
The Opinium survey for The Observer put Labour on 41 per cent with the Tories trailing on 31 per cent. The Lib Dems were on nine per cent and the Greens on six per cent.
Meanwhile, the Downing Street party revelations have causes a massive shift in Mr Johnson’s approval rating.
It has now fallen to minus 42 per cent, down significantly on the minus 24 per cent recorded last week.
It is Mr Johnson’s worst ever approval rating in an Opinium poll and it matches the worst ever approval rating recorded for Theresa May around the time of the 2019 European elections.
The poll also found that 63 per cent of Britons believe Mr Johnson should resign while 22 per cent believe he should remain as Tory leader.