Criticism of Boris Johnson from fellow Tories in the aftermath of the Sue Gray report was muted, with few MPs willing to offer a public full-throated condemnation of their party leader.
The partygate report revealed booze-fuelled partying into the early hours, cleaners having to scrub red wine off the walls, a fight between staff, and a karaoke machine at the ready under the prime minster’s watch.
The civil servant’s inquiry blamed “senior leadership” at the top of government for allowing lockdown-busting parties to take place in Downing Street and Whitehall.
Backbencher Julian Sturdy was the first new Conservative MP to join calls for Johnson’s resignation after the inquiry, describing partygate as a “distraction” during a challenging time for Brits.
Meanwhile, former minister Tobias Ellwood was heckled by fellow Tories in the Commons chamber as he questioned whether they could continue to defend Johnson’s behaviour.
Ellwood, a prominent critic of the prime minister, challenged Johnson over the “damning report” which revealed an “absence of leadership, focus and discipline in No. 10”.
He asked fellow Tories “are you willing day in and day out to defend this behaviour publicly” and asked: “Can we win the general election on this current trajectory?”
Sturdy said the Gray report showed Johnson “has presided over a widespread culture of disregard for the coronavirus regulations”.
In a statement posted on Twitter, he said: “This is clearly a time when we cannot have any doubt about the honesty, integrity, and personal character of the prime minister.
“While I thought it important to wait for the conclusion of the Metropolitan Police investigation and the publication of the Sue Gray report, I am now unable to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt and feel it is now in the public interest for him to resign.”
Prior to the report, other senior Tories voiced their disquiet.
Steve Baker, who was pivotal in bringing down Theresa May over Brexit, ominously tweeted an NHS Covid campaign poster urging people to obey lockdown rules; Tom Tugendhat said he is “talking to colleagues” about whether they should dump Johnson; and former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson went further by saying Johnson should resign.
At a meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs on Wednesday evening, where Johnson apologised, the atmosphere in the room appeared muted, but the PM faced no dissenting voices.
One source said the mood was “pretty subdued” and that the tone was “definitely more contrite” compared to previous meetings.
A party source said Johnson felt partygate had been “pretty excruciating” and that Sue Gray’s report had had the effect of having a mirror held up to the working of No.10 “which is always very sobering”.
However, the source added that the mirror had been “distorted” at times because civil servants had in fact worked “extremely hard” during the pandemic period.
The prime minister was said to be “particularly disgusted” that security staff and cleaners had been treated badly by officials and had apologised to them in person on Wednesday.
According to the source, he also conveyed to MPs that he got things wrong and that he was “ultimately responsible” for the goings-on in Downing Street but that he hoped from the “bottom of his heart” that the country could move on to talk about bigger issues.
“We need to stop talking about Westminster and start talking about the people who send us here and the issues that matter to them,” Johnson is understood to have said.
A moment of levity came when one attendee suggested that alcohol be banned in government departments, to which Johnson replied that he “wasn’t particularly big drinker himself but if alcohol was banned in 1940 we might not have won the Second World War”.
Asked by reporters whether Johnson should resign in the wake of Gray’s report, the party source said that outcome would be “ludicrous”.
“The prime minister throughout this has not been sitting in solitary confinement waiting for Sue Gray to deliver her report, he’s been beavering away endlessly on sorting out energy policy, sorting out illegal immigration, helping president Zelesnkyy to see off a superpower trying to invade his country, on getting the help needed to hard-working families, and he will carry on doing that, he has a massive mandate from the last election, he overwhelmingly won the leadership of the Conservative Party,” the source said.
“We’re halfway through an electoral term and half of it has been taken up by wrestling through a global pandemic where he got all the big calls right.
“So, the idea that he should just pack up at this point is ludicrous. It’s more about his determination to deliver what he promised to the British people than wondering, ‘Oooh, I wonder whether I should go because I got some criticisms today’.”
Speaking to reporters, Johnson supporter Jonathan Gullis said the PM had been “extremely apologetic”.
“He knows there is anger and upset in the country but what we do need to do is make sure that we’re delivering on our agenda,” he said.
“I thought he was extremely measured, I thought he was extremely compassionate, I think he fully understands that there’s a lot of rebuilding to do with some colleagues but also in the wider country and I feel very confidently that we’re going to get back on track.”
Asked what the prime minister’s main message was, Gullis replied: “Key message is that he’s sorry and we’ve got to win back the trust of the country.”
However, a separate source gave a very different assessment.
They said: “The damage is done. He’ll survive, but the party is heading for a brutal reckoning with the British people in 2024. They won’t be as forgiving.”
One account of the meeting was that it was “a performance from a man well-practised in apologies”.
And some Tory critics have even rowed back.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said on Wednesday that Sue Gray’s report is “very damaging” – but he insisted that getting rid of Johnson and “changing prime minister right now would only help Putin”.
Ross, also a Westminster MP, has previously called for the prime minister to quit, but changed his position in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.
Ross has said if the privileges committee found Johnson had intentionally misled the Commons, there was an “expectation” he would have to stand down.
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers loyally put out a string of near identical supportive tweets around the theme of “it’s time to move on”. The next tests of Johnson’s authority within the party is likely to be two crucial by-elections.