Boris Johnson said he was “sorry”, but at the end of a raw day in the House of Commons it was the UK prime minister’s own supporters who were in despair as the “partygate” scandal again enveloped his premiership.
Johnson’s Commons performance, a blustering combination of contrition and defiance, was intended to rally Tory MPs after weeks of stories about lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street; instead it appeared to have the opposite effect.
One normally loyal and longstanding Tory MP called Johnson’s performance “a total and utter train wreck”, adding that the prime minister’s future was again on the line: “The mood is utterly dire.”
Johnson hoped this would be the moment he escaped the saga over cheap wine and picnic food and strode back on to the world stage; instead he had to postpone a call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to try to shore up his own position.
Although Johnson initially apologized to MPs for “the things we did not get right”, the mood of the House of Commons turned against him the longer he stood at the despatch box.
Theresa May, former prime minister, icily asked whether Johnson had read or understood the Covid-19 rules he had made or whether he simply thought they did not apply to Number 10.
Andrew Mitchell, the former Tory chief whip, who backed Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019, solemnly announced that “he no longer enjoys my support”.
The prime minister’s allies were suddenly on red alert for the possibility that senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the parties, far from being a bowdlerised interim account, may yet be the trigger for a leadership challenge.
In response to Gray’s findings Johnson insisted he would shake up Downing Street and impose a tough new code of conduct on officials and advisers, but Keir Starmer said this was simply a case of the prime minister blaming others: “They go, he stays.”
The Labor leader urged Tory MPs to shoulder their responsibility and to remove a prime minister who was “unfit for office”, calling Johnson “a man without shame”.
He added that at every step the prime minister had “insulted the public’s intelligence” and claimed: “There’s no doubt the prime minister is subject to criminal investigation.”
Johnson countered with a claim, which had previously circulated on social media, that Starmer, when Director of Public Prosecutions, had failed to prosecute the sex offender and television personality Jimmy Savile.
Within minutes Nazir Afzal, a former chief Crown prosecutor for the North West, responded on Twitter to say Johnson was “a disgrace”. “It’s not true,” Afzal said. “I was there. Keir Starmer had nothing to do with the decisions taken. On the contrary, he supported me in bringing 100s of child sex abusers to justice. ”
Downing Street insiders said Johnson was urged in advance not to make the claim.
The prime minister’s counter-attack soon ran into the sand. Repeatedly, he refused to reassure Conservative MPs that Gray’s full account into the Downing Street parties would be published after the Metropolitan police had finished their work.
In a sign of alarm in Downing Street at growing Tory unrest, Johnson’s spokesperson later performed a U-turn and said the final report would be published after all.
The prime minister also refused to say if he had attended a party in his own flat on November 13 2020, which was now the subject of a criminal investigation by the police. “You must wait for the inquiry,” was his refrain.
Johnson had previously insisted there was no lawbreaking that night: the alleged festivities marked his sacking of Dominic Cummings, once the prime minister’s adviser and now his chief tormentor.
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National party at Westminster, broke the Commons convention when he said: “The prime minister has lied and misled the House.”
More worrying for Johnson were the stony expressions of Conservative MPs behind him and the sight of newly elected Tory MPs – alongside veterans such as May and Mitchell – speaking out against him.
Aaron Bell, elected in 2019, recounted to a silent House of Commons that had he attended his grandmother’s funeral with only 10 people in attendance: “I was not able to hug my siblings or my parents,” he said. “Does the prime minister think I’m a fool?”
One senior Tory MP emerged from the debris of the prime minister’s statement in despair: “He’s made us all look corrupt and made the country feel like fools,” he said.