Conservative MPs on Monday outlined the furious backlash they had met from voters over the Downing Street parties scandal, as a new survey suggested a significant number of Tory activists thought Boris Johnson should quit.
Tory MPs returned to Westminster in a muted mood after listening to constituents and party activists over the weekend following the prime minister’s admission on Wednesday that he attended a Downing Street “bring your own booze” garden party in May 2020 during coronavirus lockdown. Number 10 also apologised to the Queen on Friday for Number 10 parties on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021.
Grassroots Conservatives, a group representing Tory activists, said 40 per cent of its members thought Johnson should quit. Ed Costelloe, chair of the group, said there was “massive anger” about the scandal.
An opinion poll highlighted the damage the “Partygate” row has done to the Conservative party’s standing with the public. Redfield and Wilton on Monday put Labour on 43 per cent, 13 points ahead of the Tories.
Only a small number of Conservative MPs have publicly called for Johnson to resign, with most Tories choosing so far to await a report into the Downing Street parties by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant. Johnson’s team is hoping her report will not make the prime minister’s position untenable.
But one member of the government described his email inbox as “a bucket of crap” from voters and said the row was proving especially damaging in prosperous, traditionally Tory-supporting parts of England such as Oxfordshire, Surrey and Hampshire. “It’s proving especially toxic in the south,” said the MP.
Steve Baker, a former Conservative minister and influential voice among Tory MPs, said his constituents were “60 to one” against Johnson.
But he told the BBC: “I’ve listened very carefully to members of my association . . . there are some very strident voices in my constituency demanding that I support the prime minister.”
Another Tory MP said she was “pretty sure” that more letters seeking a vote of no confidence in Johnson had been submitted to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives.
She added: “Number 10 have hung their hat on the Sue Gray report. Everything now depends on that.”
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, alleged on Monday that Johnson had lied to parliament about his knowledge of the May 20 2020 Downing Street garden party.
Cummings added he would “swear under oath” that the prime minister knew it was a party. Downing Street rejected this claim, with Johnson having told MPs last week he thought it was a “work event”.
Government officials said Johnson was likely to consider banning alcohol in Number 10 following Gray’s report, which is expected to outline a culture of drinking in Downing Street.
“It’s a no brainer to ban booze”, said one Number 10 official. “Even if it is too little too late.”
Government officials said any ban would be announced following the publication of Gray’s report, which is expected either later this week or early next.
Gray is not expected to blame Johnson directly for the Downing Street parties, but many Tory MPs believe the Number 10 “drinking culture” came from the top.
Sonia Khan, a former Downing Street aide, said such a culture had long been “normalised” and senior officials had used drinks as a way of thanking staff for their long working hours.
Khan, who left the government in August 2019, told the BBC: “Drinks could start at lunch time, they could start a little bit later in the day — different teams do things very differently — but the idea of mini fridges or having drinks underneath your table wasn’t uncommon.”
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