Boris Johnson has sent a defiant message to Tory critics on the eve of a crucial Partygate vote, vowing that he will lead the party into the next general election.
Brushing aside fears that he has become an electoral liability to Tory MPs, Mr Johnson suggested the row over lockdown-busting parties at No 10 does not really matter to voters, compared to issues like the Ukraine war, jobs, growth and the cost of living crisis.
And he doubled down on his attack on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby for criticizing his plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, insisting that the removals are “the morally right thing to do”.
Mr Johnson refused to apologize for his comments about the Archbishop, which were branded “a disgraceful slur” by the Church of England after reports that he told a private meeting of Tory MPs that Welby had mustered more outrage over the immigration policy than over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters on his trip to India, Mr Johnson said he had “a very good relationship” with the Archbishop, but added: “What I was saying was that I think we have an excellent policy to try to stop people drowning in the Channel and I was surprised to find it criticized.
“I think it is the morally right thing to do, to stop cynical criminal gangs exploiting people. I think it’s a sensitive, brave and original policy and Priti (Patel) has come up with something that is extremely difficult to pull off.”
He firmly denied reports that he also criticized the BBC’s coverage of Ukraine at Tuesday evening’s behind-closed-doors meeting, saying: “I said I thought the policy had been misconstructed by the BBC. I had just come off the phone to (president) Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who was making that very point to me, so it’s not just my view.”
The prime minister will miss Thursday’s vote on a formal Commons inquiry into whether he has committed a contempt of parliament by lying over parties, but has put Tory MPs under a three-line whip to vote down the Labor move.
Conservatives will try to kick the issue into the long grass by backing an amendment to defer any vote on the proposal until after the police have completed their own inquiry and the report by civil servant Sue Gray has been published.
Speaking to reporters on his plane to India, the prime minister refused to discuss suggestions put forward by his own MPs that he might call a confidence vote in himself or voluntarily submit to investigation by the Commons Privileges Committee to draw a line under doubts over his future .
And he said he would not speculate on whether he would resign if he faces further ends from the Metropolitan Police for breaking Covid laws at up to five more parties.
“I’m not going to speculate,” he said. “I’m going to try and focus on the job in hand.”
Asked if he could envisage any circumstances in which he would resign, he said: “Not a lot spring to mind. I can’t think of them right now. It’s for the Conservative government to get on with the job and in particular get on with attracting jobs.”
His comments came after former Tory chief whip Mark Harper called for his removal, saying he was no longer “worthy of the great office which he holds”.
Mr Harper submitted a letter of no confidence to the chair of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, who must call a vote on Mr Johnson’s leadership if demanded by 54 MPs.
But asked if he would still be Tory leader for the general election expected in 2024, the PM replied without a pause: “Of course, yes.”
“The best thing to do for the people, for parliament, is to get on and focus on the things we were elected to do,” he said.
“Politics has taught me one thing, which is that you’re better off talking and focusing on the things that matter and the things that make a real difference to the electorate, and not about politicians themselves.”
Asked whether this meant that he did not believe the Partygate scandal matters, he replied: “You’re better off talking about things other than politicians themselves.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.