Boris Johnson quotes Lion King to fend off rumours of leadership challenge

Watch: Keir Starmer 'deserves respect' for DPP job, says Sajid Javid

Boris Johnson has turned to Disney's The Lion King to fend off calls for his resignation, as two of his frontbenchers distanced themselves from comments he made about Jimmy Savile.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid - both tipped as frontrunners in a potential leadership challenge - both appeared to criticise his choice of words.

Johnson made a discredited claim on Monday that Sir Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute paedophile Savile when he was head of the CPS - when in fact Starmer had not been the reviewing lawyer for the case.

Sunak openly undermined Johnson when he was asked about the comments.

He said: "Being honest I wouldn’t have said it and I’m glad that the prime minister clarified what he meant."

Javid further twisted the knife on Friday and praised Starmer for his work.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid talks to the media after a visit to University College Hospital in London to mark World Cancer Day. Picture date: Friday February 4, 2022.
Javid further twisted the knife on Friday and praised Starmer for his work (PA)

The health secretary told reporters: "Keir Starmer, when he was running the DPP, did a good job and he should be respected for it, it is a tough job and he deserved absolute respect for that.

"But the prime minister has also come out and clarified those remarks, and that is important."

Despite initially doubling down on his comments, Johnson later backtracked, and on Thursday said he understood why people got "hot under the collar" about the claim.

But despite seeming to back off his previous claims, it came too late for some of his most senior staffers.

It comes after five of his aides quit within 24 hours of each other, in a sign all is not well behind the famous door of Number 10.

File photo dated 21/10/21 of Rishi Sunak. The Government must do more to prioritise economic crime and explain why legislation is being delayed, according to an influential group of MPs. Issue date: Wednesday February 2, 2022.
Rishi Sunak - widely tipped as a leadership candidate - has distanced himself from the comments (PA)

Downing Street confirmed on Friday that Number 10 Policy Unit member Elena Narozanski was the latest to walk out, joining his chief of staff, principal private secretary, director of communications and policy chief.

Ministers tried to argue the exodus was part of Mr Johnson “taking charge” as he faces a potential leadership challenge amid allegations of rule-breaking parties in Downing Street.

Speaking to staff today, the PM quoted Lion King as he sought to quell rumours he was coming to the end of his premiership.

Johnson said: “As Rafiki in The Lion King says, change is good, and change is necessary even though it’s tough.”

Mr Johnson was also said to have given his familiar “half-time pep talk” in which he talks about spitting out the “orange peel” and getting back on the “pitch”.

He delivered that same message to his Cabinet in September last year after carrying out a ruthless cull of his top team.

Speaking to journalists, his official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has acknowledged it’s a challenging time as we go through a period of change but as he reiterated to the whole team today, there is an important job to do, the public expects us to be focused on it, whether it is the situation in Ukraine, recovering from the pandemic or, as the Chancellor was setting out yesterday, on issues such as cost of living.”

Munira Mirza, the former director of the No 10 policy unit and one of Mr Johnson’s most loyal and longstanding advisers, walked out after attacking the Prime Minister, saying he was "letting himself down"over the use of a “scurrilous” Jimmy Savile smear against Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Read more: Boris Johnson’s senior aide quits in damning letter over PM's Jimmy Saville slur

Editor of Conservative Home Paul Goodman tweeted the news (Twitter)
Editor of Conservative Home Paul Goodman tweeted the news (Twitter)

In a letter to the Prime Minister reported by the Spectator, Ms Mirza wrote: “I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice.

“There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse.

“You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”

His director of communications Jack Doyle also resigned, saying "recent weeks have taken a terrible toll on my family life".

The departures will pile more pressure on the PM, whose ill-judged comments now threaten to spiral out of control at a time when he is trying to appease significant numbers of his own MPs following the damning Sue Gray report in lockdown parties.

Cabinet sources told The Times there is now a 50/50 chance of Johnson being ousted.

They added: "It feels like the end, it's all falling apart at the moment.

"It's 50/50 in my view at the moment."

File photo dated 15/12/2020 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Munira Mirza leaving in Downing Street, London. His long-term ally was said to have quit in outrage at his
Munira Mirza, the former director of the No 10 policy unit and one of Mr Johnson’s most loyal and longstanding advisers, walked out (PA)

Eleven Tory MPs have publicly submitted letters of no-confidence in the PM, though the total number is likely to be more.

A total of 54 Tory MPs - 15% of the parliamentary party - need to submit letters of no confidence to trigger a vote.

The PM had hoped that the rebellion had been quelled after a slimmed down of the Sue Gray report into alleged Downing Street parties was published.

Johnson seemed to have been offered a temporary reprieve after an intervention from the Met Police ensured Gray made "minimal reference" to events they are investigating, meaning details of rule-breaking were suppressed.

The report concluded that there were "failures of leadership" and behaviour that was "difficult to justify".

Watch: Elena Narozanski: Fifth aide quits Boris Johnson's Number 10 as exodus continues

It also confirmed that police are investigating 12 potentially criminal events.

The debacle seems to have cut through to voters. A recent poll has shown over a quarter of people who voted Tory at the 2019 election say they would change their vote if they could go back.

Politics Home reports 28% of Conservative voters who were asked said they would change their vote.

Although Johnson has been keen to move on from Partygate, the figures also showed the public may be less likely to let the matter go.

A total of 39% said the alleged rule breaking mattered to them "a significant amount", with 26% saying it mattered a fair amount.