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The Prime Minister “should set the highest standards”, a minister has declared as he warned claims of rule-breaching Number 10 parties have damaged trust in the Government.
George Freeman told a constituent that people in power “shouldn’t seek to escape public responsibility or accountability”, in comments likely to be seen as veiled criticism of Boris Johnson.
The business minister denied that he was questioning Mr Johnson’s leadership, saying he wanted to wait for the Whitehall investigation into alleged parties to conclude and to hear the Prime Minister’s response.
His private remarks, reported by The Times, emerged as Dominic Cummings claimed that he and other eyewitnesses were prepared to swear under oath that the Prime Minister has “lied to Parliament about parties” at Downing Street.
The former chief aide to Mr Johnson also alleged in a blog post on Monday night that there are “many other photos of parties after I left yet to appear”.
In an intervention likely to spark deep consternation across Number 10 and the Tory backbenches, Mr Cummings indicated that he will “say more” about the issue only after a report by Sue Gray into alleged rule-breaching parties is published.
The threat risks undermining Ms Gray’s report, which The Telegraph understands is expected to conclude between the end of this week and early next week.
On May 20 2020, the day of a Number 10 drinks event for which Mr Johnson last week apologised but insisted he “believed implicitly” was a work event, Mr Cummings said he had personally warned the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary that an invitation to the gathering “broke the rules”.
Martin Reynolds had emailed 100 staff encouraging them to “make the most of the lovely weather” by engaging in “socially distanced drinks” in the Downing Street garden.
Mr Cummings claimed that in addition to himself, “a very senior official replied by email saying the invite broke the rules”, and speculated that it was “not credible” that Mr Reynolds would not have checked that Mr Johnson was happy for the event to proceed.
The former aide also made the claim that he himself raised concerns about the event with Mr Johnson directly, writing: “I said to the PM something like: Martin’s invited the building to a drinks party… The PM waved it aside.”
Mr Cummings said: “The events of May 20 alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties. Not only me, but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.”
The Prime Minister told MPs last month that he had been “repeatedly assured” there was “no party and that no Covid rules were broken”, in response to allegations of a rule-breaching event in December 2020.
Mr Cummings’s remarks followed a claim in The Sunday Times that two aides warned Mr Johnson that the May 20 2020 event broke Covid rules.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman on Monday reiterated an outright denial, saying: “We made clear over the weekend that it’s untrue to say that the Prime Minister was told or warned ahead of that [event on 20 May 2020].”
On Monday night, it emerged that Mr Freeman, the minister for science, research and innovation, said in a letter to a constituent that “the Prime Minister and his office should set the highest standards”.
The frontbencher also reportedly referred to parties taking place in Number 10 at a time when many people “couldn’t see dying loved ones”. The message was sent after Mr Johnson addressed MPs about the garden party at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday.
A government source hit back, saying that Mr Johnson had tackled the issue during that Commons appearance, “apologising and making clear he took responsibility”.
On Monday, Mr Freeman denied that his letter amounted to questioning Mr Johnson’s leadership, tweeting:
Rubbish: I’ve been v clear re PM that we need to wait & hear what the official investigation shows, & PMs response.
My letter to constituents makes clear my anger that No10 staff were holding parties, how damaging the saga has been & that the PM & Cabinet need to restore trust. https://t.co/BJTY6xpsWu
— George Freeman MP (@GeorgeFreemanMP) January 17, 2022
As speculation swirled in Westminster about Mr Johnson’s future, a new poll indicated that Rishi Sunak has a 28-point lead over Liz Truss among Tory members, in a head-to-head race between them to become the next party leader. The poll found that the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary were the two most popular candidates to make it to the final run-off.
The survey challenged a widely-held view, underpinned in part by a Cabinet league table published by the Tory grassroots website ConservativeHome, that Ms Truss is the most popular Cabinet minister among party members. The poll put her on
The survey of 704 Tory members, conducted by Opinium between Thursday and Monday, showed 63 per cent think Mr Johnson should remain as leader, while 25 per cent think he should resign. The poll showed 52 per cent of the membership still believe he would sweep a majority at the next election.
It also suggested that 46 per cent believe he is telling the truth about parties in Downing Street, while 29 per cent do not think he is being truthful, and 25 per cent said they did not know.
It came as Tory MPs raised concerns that Ms Gray’s report into Number 10 parties could be redacted, prompting calls for all senior figures referenced in the probe to be publicly named.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed on Monday that it would be published “swiftly” after being handed to Mr Johnson, but declined to specify a more precise timetable. It is understood that Number 10 will aim to release it within around a day of receiving it.
The format the report will take remains unclear, but fears have arisen that significant swathes could be redacted to protect the identity of officials, although Number 10 has said it will be published in full.
Bob Blackman, a senior Tory MP and the executive secretary of the 1922 Committee, said: “We need to get to the bottom of all these activities in Number 10.”
Arguing that the “vast majority” of attendees at any event in Downing Street are likely to have been civil servants, he said: “What happens to them, will they be disciplined?”.
He urged Number 10 to commit to publishing the names of senior officials involved rather than redacting them, arguing that it would make it more likely that “there may then follow disciplinary action”.
His intervention was echoed by Lee Anderson, a “Red Wall” Tory MP, who declared that the inquiry must be published in its entirety: “Of course the whole country would want to see the report. We can’t have things done behind closed doors; there would be no point to the report.”
He warned he “would hope they [Number 10] wouldn’t” redact names of people potentially involved in wrongdoing “unless anyone is at significant risk of harm”.
“At the end of the day, these people are at work. If they’ve done something, if they are part of that inquiry, you can’t have ‘Mrs X’ or ‘Mr A’ or ‘Mr B’ [instead of real names]. These people are paid by the taxpayer,” he said.
Mr Anderson added that he was referring specifically to “senior people who should know better” than to break Covid rules, and did not believe that junior officials should be “named and shamed”.
Boris Johnson ‘unlikely to recover’
It came as a polling expert predicted that the Prime Minister is unlikely to recover fully from the row engulfing him over Downing Street parties.
Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, highlighted polling suggesting that a majority of voters who backed the Conservatives at the last election now disapproved of Mr Johnson’s performance.
The polling expert told Times Radio that Tory MPs “have to ask themselves whether or not the Prime Minister is likely to recover from a situation where around a half of the people who voted for him thinks he should go”.
Steve Baker, a longstanding critic of Mr Johnson over lockdown policies, told Sky News he thought his constituents “may be too angry to forgive” the Prime Minister over the party allegations. He said local voters in his Wycombe seat were “absolutely furious”.
His warnings dovetailed with a defence of the Prime Minister by the Education Secretary, who insisted Mr Johnson had got the “big calls” right.
Nadhim Zahawi said: “Whether it’s Brexit, the vaccine programme which the Prime Minister very much focused on and I led the deployment, and of course the call on omicron pre-Christmas... on the big decisions, he’s made the right call.”
He added: “Of course, we’re all human, we make mistakes. And when he made a mistake, he came to Parliament and apologised for it.”