How Tory MPs reacted to Sue Gray’s report – and why Boris Johnson might just be out of the woods

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Boris Johnson said on Wednesday it was his 'duty' to attend certain Downing Street parties - TOLGA AKMEN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Boris Johnson said on Wednesday it was his 'duty' to attend certain Downing Street parties - TOLGA AKMEN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The Prime Minister has insisted that it was his “duty” to attend certain Downing Street parties as senior Tories questioned whether he will win the next election.

Boris Johnson said it was important for him to attend farewell events for officials and advisers at Number 10 to “thank them for their service”, which he said was “one of the essential duties of leadership”.

On a dramatic day in Westminster, he faced calls to resign from senior backbenchers including those who broke ranks for the first time to urge him to stand down. But many other Tories - who had previously been vocal in their dissent - on Wednesday declined to make any public statement, suggesting the rebellion has now died down from its height in January.

On Wednesday night, the Prime Minister faced his own MPs at a raucous meeting of the 1922 committee, where loud desk banging could be heard from outside the room.

He told MPs that Downing Street staffers were not “were partying as if it was Saturday night in July in Ibiza - they were actually working extremely hard flat out”, according to a Conservative Party source.

Mr Johnson also reportedly said that he has found the whole partygate affair “excruciating” and joked that he was not a particularly big drinker himself but that “had alcohol been banned in Number 10 in 1940, we may not have won the Second World War”.

Another source said in response to a question about rural broadband for farmers, the Prime Minister quipped that farmers have managed to get internet recently - a reference to the MP Neil Parish who recently quit after watching porn on his phone in the Commons.

The meeting came after a handful of senior Tories from different wings of the party publicly urged him to stand down, with Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, becoming the first new name to do so following the Sue Gray report.

He was joined by Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, who hinted that he should resign after the Ukraine war, while earlier in the Commons Tobias Ellwood repeated his call for the Prime Minister to go.

Other senior Tories who have previously said the Prime Minister should resign - including former ministers David Davis and Tim Loughton - said on Wednesday that they have not changed their minds.

Mr Davis, who earlier this year told Mr Johnson “in the name of God, go”, said on Wednesday that “if he doesn’t go, we’ll have death of a thousand cuts” while Mr Loughton told The Telegraph that the Prime Minister’s position remains "untenable".

Tory whips fear the 54 letter mark - the number required to trigger a vote of no confidence - could be reached any day but are in the dark about when this might be. Estimates about the number of letters submitted to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, vary between the forties or as many as 50.

Writing on Twitter, Mr Sturdy said partygate remained a “damaging distraction” adding: “I am unable to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and feel it is now in the public interest for him to resign”.

Meanwhile Mr Ross, who submitted a letter of no confidence in February but withdrew it the following month, suggested that Mr Johnson should step aside as soon as the war in Ukraine is over.

He described the Sue Gray report as "very damaging" and said it highlighted "a culture that's not acceptable at any time, let alone when the rest of us were locked down". He added: "The Prime Minister doesn't have my unqualified support, it has been because of the situation in Ukraine."

'We haven't regained the public trust'

Stephen Hammond, the MP for Wimbledon and a former transport minister, also voiced his misgivings by saying that nobody should be "defending the indefensible" over partygate.

He said on Sky News he was particularly struck by colleagues "who are really concerned" by Mr Johnson's focus on moving on from the scandal at a time when voters do not seem to have been won over.

"We haven't regained the public trust. I'm not sure we can. And I think there are a lot of colleagues who are perhaps realising that unless something happens, we may not be able to win the next general election."

Tory criticism in the Commons was led by the Prime Minister’s arch-critic Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who said the Sue Gray report was “damning”.

Mr Ellwood, who was heckled by fellow Conservatives as he spoke, asked whether his colleagues are willing to “day in and day out to defend this behaviour publicly”. He went on to say: “Can we win the general election on this current trajectory? If we cannot work out what we're going to do, then the broad church of the Conservative Party will lose the next general election.”

Tobias Ellwood - Kirsty O'Connor
Tobias Ellwood - Kirsty O'Connor

He was joined by Sir Robert Buckland who said: “The rules of this House are clear: that anybody who comes here and deliberately lies and misleads this House should leave their position, resign or apologise" and then asked Mr Johnson whether he had "deliberately lied to us".

Meanwhile John Baron, the MP for Basildon and Billericay, asked whether rule-breaking in Downing Street “passed the test of reasonableness”.

And Aaron Bell, a 2019-intake Red Wall MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme who submitted a letter of no confidence in January, questioned whether there was any truth to the claim that the Prime Minister asked Ms Gray not to publish the report. He shook his head in disbelief as Mr Johnson side-stepped the answer by saying that the report was “wholly independent”.

But out of the 13 Tories who spoke, they were the only four who were directly or indirectly critical of their party leader over partygate.

Several senior Conservative figures - including those who have previously been outspoken critics of the Prime Minister’s conduct like Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, Mark Harper,  the ex-chief whip, and Steve Baker, the rebel MP - did not speak out.


The remaining nine Tories who spoke in the Commons either called for a focus on other issues, criticised Sir Keir Starmer over "beergate", or railed against what they saw as draconian Covid rules. Much of the Conservative benches emptied out following the initial exchanges, leaving MPs from opposition parties to continue questioning the Prime Minister.

Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said he takes full responsibility for “everything that took place on my watch”. But he insisted that it was “appropriate” for him to attend events to thank staff for their contribution to Government and to “keep morale as high as possible”.

He went on to joke that Labour is led by "Sir Beer Korma" and urged the "sanctimonious" opposition leader to apologise for allegedly breaking Covid rules by having a curry takeaway with colleagues last April.

Following his appearance in the Commons, several Cabinet members rallied round the Prime Minister as they lined up to pledge their support for him on social media. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, said “I back him 100 per cent” while Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, said “lessons have been learned”.

Several MPs who had previously called on Mr Johsnon to go over partygate revelations did not make any public comment on Wednesday, suggesting they either want to reserve judgment until after the privileges committee report or that they have now quietly dropped their campaign altogether.

Out of the 16 MPs who had publicly called for Mr Johnson to resign, only six spoke publicly about "partygate" on Wednesday, a figure that fell to three during the debate in the House of Commons.

Andrew Mitchell, the former Cabinet minister who was highly critical of Mr Johnson on the day of the update but stopped short of calling for his resignation, did not say anything, nor did a number of backbenchers who had previously indicated they would wait for Ms Gray's report.

PM has 'phenomenal Teflon coat'

While partygate has been dominating news headlines in recent days, public attention is now also focused on the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. It also suggests Ms Gray's full findings could take days for MPs to digest and come to a final decision.

On Wenesday, February 2, two days after Ms Gray's interim findings were published, three Tory MPs called for Mr Johnson to resign on the same day, with some citing his supposed lack of contrition and comments at Prime Minister's Questions. But Wednesday saw no such "domino effect" of demands for the Prime Minister to step aside.

Caroline Nokes said the Prime Minister "has a phenomenal Teflon coat".

"I urge my colleagues to do some soul-searching on the back of this and think about whether they really think he’s fit to lead this country", she told Times Radio. "Unless my colleagues reevaluate their right and wrong, he will lead us into the next general election."

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