Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister stands on a knife edge as cabinet ministers and supporters expressed doubts that he would survive a scandal over Downing Street lockdown parties that prompted an apology to the Queen.
Downing Street said it was “deeply regrettable” that a party had been held at a time of “national mourning”. The event, held on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, saw aides smuggling alcohol into the basement in a suitcase with a DJ playing tracks.
Senior members of the Johnson government said the latest incident of a breach of lockdown rules may have terminally harmed Johnson. “The drip-drip of revelations is seriously damaging,” said one cabinet minister. Another said: “The government is now roughly divided into two camps: those who think he will go now, and those who think he will go later.”
One longtime supporter of Johnson said: “He’s done, it’s over. He’s truly done for,” adding that trust was slipping away among MPs as the excuses for the parties “don’t cut the mustard”.
There were also initial signs of rivals preparing for a potential leadership contest. One Tory donor said they had been sounded out on Friday by two cabinet ministers who are expected to run if Johnson is forced out. “The conversations are happening,” they said.
MPs representing marginal seats also said that they felt Johnson had become “a drag”. One said: “Nobody can imagine him leading us into the next general election. The damage is set and it can’t be undone.”
The apology to the Queen came at the end of the most bruising week of Johnson’s career, where he was forced to make an apology in the House of Commons for a lockdown gathering he attended in May 2020 when the country was under strict Covid restrictions.
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, said Johnson had “degraded the office of prime minister” and called on him to resign. “An apology isn’t the only thing the prime minister should be offering the Palace today.”
The lockdown parties are being investigated by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant. The inquiry is expected to focus on a Whitehall “drinking culture” and management failure.
Kate Josephs, the former head of the government task force responsible for Covid rules, also apologised on Friday for holding a leaving party in the Cabinet Office that broke restrictions. “I am truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result,” she said.
And further evidence pointed to a culture of breaking coronavirus rules. The Mirror reported that Johnson encouraged “wine time Fridays” for staff to “let off steam” and Number 10 aides installed a wine fridge for such occasions. Downing Street did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Michael Gove, levelling-up secretary, insisted Johnson would not quit. “I think the most important thing is to give people the truth,” he said, hinting that individuals may face action following Gray’s inquiry. “If there is a specific need for disciplinary action or for responsibility to be taken, let’s do that.”
Conservative MPs will return to their constituencies this weekend, where most are braced for an angry response from party activists and voters over the party revelations. Johnson’s inner circle are fearful this could lead to further no confidence letters being submitted to the leadership of the Tory backbench 1922 committee next week.
One Tory MP who entered parliament in 2019 said the situation had worsened in the last 24 hours. “The harrowing photo of the Queen sitting on her own became a visceral image of the pandemic. That, contrasted with the mental image of suitcases of alcohol and broken baby toys, paints a poor image of our government.”
But some supporters of Johnson said that his position could still be saved. “If Sue Gray turns out OK and the prime minister has a credible plan to shake up his team, I can see a way through. He’s been written off many times before and has always bounced back,” said another cabinet minister.
A survey by YouGov highlighted the growing public anger over the parties. Of those polled, 63 per cent said Johnson should resign over the matter, up from 56 per cent earlier in the week; 80 per cent also stated the prime minister had not been honest about the parties.
A poll of voting intentions by Savanta ComRes gave the Labour party a 10-point lead — 42% against 32% for the Tories — and the opposition its highest vote share since 2013.
Johnson’s inner circle were drawing up plans on Friday to reboot the prime minister’s campaign, including a “clear-out” of Downing Street officials and special advisers, a new No 10 political operation and a relaunch of his domestic policy agenda. “That might give us till May,” one aide said.