Boris Johnson grilled by Sue Gray over Downing Street parties as Tory anger boils over
Boris Johnson has been questioned by Sue Gray over “partygate” allegations, Whitehall sources have told The Telegraph, as new signs of a Tory grassroots backlash emerged.
The Prime Minister is understood to have shared what he knows with Ms Gray, the civil servant overseeing the investigation into alleged parties at Downing Street during lockdown, ahead of publication of the report as early as this week.
Downing Street is already planning its response to the findings, with the promise to overhaul a “drinking culture” in Number 10 and the departure of senior figures expected.
With Mr Johnson facing the biggest political crisis of his premiership, more evidence emerged of an angry reaction among Tory voters to allegations of lockdown-breaking parties.
A survey conducted by the Grassroots Conservatives group found that around four in 10 of its supporters wanted Mr Johnson to resign now, according to Ed Costelloe, the group’s chairman.
Tory MPs claimed that “enormous anger” had been conveyed by their local associations over the weekend, with one saying five per cent of their party members had quit.
It emerged on Sunday that one Tory MP’s constituency office had been daubed with the words “lies, lies, lies”. Other MPs say emails of complaint have flooded into inboxes.
Meanwhile, the number of Conservative MPs publicly calling on Mr Johnson to go is ticking up, with Tim Loughton, a former minister, becoming the sixth.
Robert Syms, the Tory MP for Poole, is considering joining them, telling The Telegraph: “Like my colleague, Tim Loughton, I am considering whether or not I ought to put in a letter."
He added: "I've had emails from what I would call Christian, decent, honest, honourable types of Tory voters, who say they feel embarrassed about voting Conservative with Boris Johnson.”
Amid the backdrop of discontent and uncertainty, Mr Johnson is plotting his fightback, with his most trusted political allies who have rallied to his side.
One Tory MP said that they had written a letter of no confidence that would be submitted to the 1922 Committee once Ms Gray’s report was completed, and claimed that six other MPs would do likewise.
In a sign of the suspicion sweeping the parliamentary party, it is claimed that Tory whips have been monitoring the approach to the 1922 committee chairman’s office to see who submits letters.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor and likely future leadership contender, is one of a dozen Cabinet ministers yet to pledge support in TV or radio interviews since Mr Johnson’s apology last Wednesday.
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chairman, toured the broadcast studios on Sunday indicating that the Prime Minister would overhaul the “culture” in Number 10 once Ms Gray published her report.
“I can assure you the Prime Minister is both very contrite and deeply apologetic for what happened,” Mr Dowden told the BBC's Sunday Morning programme.
"But, more importantly, he is determined to make sure that this can't be allowed to happen and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street.”
Johnson loyalists were working the phones throughout the weekend attempting to shore up wavering Tory MPs in what is set to be a critical week for his leadership.
He will go public on Wednesday after days isolating after a family member caught Covid, facing Sir Keir Starmer and discontent among his own MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
An effort to protect the Prime Minister, dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog”, is under way that is likely to see senior Number 10 figures forced out later this month.
A string of policy announcements, including lifting Covid restrictions, sending in the military to tackle the migrant boat crisis, and freezing the BBC licence fee, are coming.
Allies are upbeat about Mr Johnson’s chances of political survival after ring-rounds of Tory MPs, insisting the Prime Minister is determined to make it through.
“He is a fighter. He will go on fighting,” one member of Mr Johnson’s inner circle of allies told The Telegraph.
“You don’t spend your life trying to become Prime Minster, it’s your one great ambition, and then throw it away like that.”
However, signs the Tory grassroots backlash are growing have continued to emerge.
Mr Costelloe said his organisation, which represents Tory grassroots interest, had hundreds of responses to his survey issued late last week.
While around 40 per cent of respondents wanted Mr Johnson to resign now, Mr Costelloe estimated a majority did not want him leading the party into the next election, due in 2024.
Mr Costelloe said: "There is no doubt most people feel he shouldn’t take us into the next election.
“The typical voter out there, not necessarily a Conservative supporter, are they going to vote for him? That would depend very much on the opinion polls and so forth nearer the time.
“But if you need a new leader, a) it needs to be planned and b) the timing needs to be right to give them the chance to prepare for the next election. And obviously the sand is running through the timer on that one.”
One pollster who previously worked in No 10 under Theresa May said focus groups with both Red Wall and Tory heartland voters had called for him to resign.
One long-term Tory voter told James Johnson: "If there was an election now, and Boris is still here, I wouldn’t vote Conservative", while someone who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 said: "He needs to resign. He has lost all integrity and all trust."
Tory MPs privately told The Telegraph about the scale of backlash they faced. One Tory elected in a former Labour Red Wall seat in 2019 said: “I don't know which has been worse: the hundreds of emails, the members resigning or the fact that it has just been ridiculed.”
Another Tory MP said: “We have had an influx of emails over the past 48 hours. People are very, very angry.”
A third said: “So I think there's genuine anger. And I don't blame people - I'm angry about it as well.”
On Sunday, Sir Iain Duncan Smith described the alleged lockdown-busting parties in No 10 as "unforgivable". Jeremy Hunt has previously described receiving emails that were "red hot with anger”.
Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor, said one MP had told her that he was asked by a group of nine-year-olds whether or not the Prime Minister was going to resign.
Downing Street on Sunday denied claims Mr Johnson had been warned by at least two members of his staff that a garden party in May 2020 should not go ahead because it would breach Covid regulations.
Dominic Lawson, a columnist, wrote in the Sunday Times that "at least two people" had said the "party" should be "immediately cancelled" - but it went ahead anyway.
A No 10 spokesman said: “It is untrue that the Prime Minister was warned about the event in advance.”
The exact form that Ms Gray’s report will take and when it will be published remain unclear.
Whitehall insiders say it will be published later this week at the earliest but may also slip to next, given new allegations emerging.
Ms Gray and her team of investigators - exactly how many is unknown - have been scrutinising a growing list of allegations. “She and the team have access to the full range of evidence. That could include asking to see any videos, messages and photos”, said the source.
The full list of attendees at Downing Street parties are not expected to be revealed in Ms Gray’s report into what happened due to Civil Service rules.
The Telegraph has been told that the usual approach to naming civil servants will be taken when Ms Gray, a senior civil servant, completes her findings.
That means civil servants above a certain rank will be named but those lower down the career ladder will be allowed to keep their anonymity.
Asked for a response to Mr Johnson being questioned by Ms Gray, Downing Street and the Cabinet Office declined to comment.