The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, has insisted the prime minister was “very, very sincere,” when he apologised for attending an alcohol-fuelled gathering in the Downing Street garden, but did not believe he had broken the rules.
Boris Johnson told MPs on Wednesday he thought he was at a “work event” when he dropped into what his own principal private secretary had called, “socially distanced drinks”.
Lewis told Sky News: “The prime minister has outlined that he doesn’t believe that he has done anything outside the rules. If you look at what the investigation finds, people will be able to take their own view of that at the time.”
Johnson’s apology failed to assuage the concerns of many Conservatives, with Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, and senior backbencher William Wragg calling for him to resign.
Several cabinet ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were slow to declare their backing for Johnson, with Sunak eventually tweeting that the prime minister deserved “patience” until civil servant Sue Gray officially reports on the lockdown events.
Lewis played down reports that Sunak, who was in Devon at the time of Johnson’s public apology, had been lukewarm in his reponse.
“I have seen Rishi working with the prime minister. They work absolutely hand-in-hand. I know that Rishi has got support for the prime minister,” he said.
Some MPs had suggested Johnson was unrepentant when talking to colleagues after he apologised to the House of Commons. But Lewis insisted he was, “very, very sincere”.
He told the BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme that the PM had “made it very clear that, with hindsight, he regrets doing what he did in going out and not just straight away telling the staff to go back in but thanking the team for the work they were doing.
“He does recognise the anger and upset and frustration that people feel at what they perceive happened at No 10. He recognises that and takes responsibility. Anybody who looks at what he said at the dispatch box yesterday will clearly be able to see that was very, very sincere.”
It came as the prime minister pulled out of an engagement on Thursday after a family member tested positive for Covid.
Johnson would have faced questions from the media about his attendance at the Downing Street event on the planned visit to a Lancashire vaccination clinic on Thursday. He pulled out, despite official guidance no longer requiring vaccinated contacts of coronavirus cases to self-isolate.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister will no longer be visiting Lancashire today due to a family member testing positive for coronavirus.
“He will follow the guidance for vaccinated close contacts, including daily testing and limiting contact with others.”
Lewis played down reports that Johnson had told Conservative MPs in the Commons tea room that he does not believe he did anything wrong and the government is taking a hit for something it does not deserve.
“I haven’t heard him say that at all. I wasn’t in the tea room. So commenting on tittle-tattle that may have come out of the tea room I can’t do,” he told the Today programme.
Johnson is facing calls from some Conservative MPs to resign. But cabinet ministers have defended him, saying MPs should wait for the outcome of Gray’s inquiry.
Asked what facts the prime minister still needed to know, Lewis said: “We can’t know the facts we don’t know until the investigation tells us what they are,” he told Today.
Meanwhile, the deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, has written to Johnson and his government asking for “full details of parties” that cabinet ministers may have attended during lockdown, the shadow housing secretary, Lisa Nandy, said.
She said Johnson “should not be confident that he will survive” the controversy over the Downing Street party.