Boris Johnson’s apology to the House of Commons for breaching Covid lockdown rules has failed to appease Conservative critics who are calling for his head, with one former Tory chief whip publicly branding him “unworthy” of the office of prime minister.
Prominent backbencher Mark Harper submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister, accusing him of asking Tory MPs to “defend the indefensible” as a crucial local elections approach.
And one former minister, who has not yet written a no-confidence letter, told The Independent after the PM’s apology that “it will never be glad confident morning again” for Mr Johnson.
“It may be unfair but it’s time to say ‘thank you and goodbye’,” said the former minister.
Mr Johnson’s apology was dismissed as a “joke” by Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, as the PM again denied that he had deliberately misled parliament – something which the ministerial code makes clear is a resigning matter.
Mr Starmer again called for the PM to resign and urged Tory MPs to “bring an end to this shameful chapter” by joining Labor in voting on Thursday for a formal parliamentary investigation into his actions.
He told the house that the PM’s comments amounted to an “insult” to ordinary Britons who made sacrifices during the pandemic, citing a man named John Robinson who did not visit his wife in hospital as she died of Covid because he was observing the rules which Mr Johnson had set but “blithely, repeatedly and deliberately ignored”.
In his first comments to the Commons since being fined £50 by police for attending a birthday party in the cabinet room at a time in June 2020 when social gatherings were banned by law, the prime minister repeated what he said was “a wholehearted apology” to voters.
But asked if he had deliberately misled the house by telling MPs in December that Covid rules were followed at No 10, he replied firmly: “No.”
He faced heckles of “resign” and “criminal” as he told MPs: “Let me … say, not by way of mitigation or excuse, but purely because it explains my previous words in this House, that it didn’t occur to me , then or subsequently, that a gathering in the cabinet room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules. That was my mistake, and I apologize for it unreservedly.”
However, he could face charges that he broke the code’s requirement for ministers always to comply with the law, after admitting for the first time that he broke it. Asked if he thought that he had broken the law, Mr Johnson replied: “I completely accept that the police are right and that’s why I paid the fine.”
Mr Harper, who stood against Mr Johnson in the 2019 leadership election, announced he had sent a no-confidence letter to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, who must call a vote on the PM’s position if 54 Tory MPs demand Item.
“We have a PM who broke the rules that he told the public to follow, hasn’t been straightforward about it – and is now going to ask the decent men and women on these benches to defend the indefensible,” said Mr Harper, who has won a following among Mr Johnson’s critics as chair of the Covid Recovery Group.
Boris Johnson ‘no longer worthy’ of being Prime Minister, says senior Tory MP
“I’m very sorry to have to say this, but I no longer think he is worthy of the great office that he holds.”
Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg later attacked Mr Harper for his statement. “Mark had been gearing up for that for some time … It was quite funny when he said how much it pained him when he was clearly enjoying the moment thoroughly,” he told LBC Radio.
But veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale, who was the first to call for Mr Johnson to go, told The Independent that there remained “a lot” of unhappy people on the Tory benches following the PM’s statement.
“As an apology it was pretty abject, but it doesn’t in my view clear the air,” said Sir Roger, who has called for Mr Johnson to hand over to his deputy Dominic Raab as interim prime minister of a “war cabinet” to avoid a disruptive leadership election during the Ukraine crisis.
“If it was a one-off, he might get away with it. But if, as I assume, there are more fines and then the Sue Gray report and bad local election results on 5 May, he is in serious trouble.”
While Mr Harper was the only Tory MP to call for Mr Johnson’s resignation in the 90-minute debate following his statement, only a handful turned up in the Commons to speak in his support.
And some of those who did back the PM made clear they expected a change in approach, with Steve Baker seeking assurances that “nothing of this kind will ever happen again” and David Simmonds asking what Mr Johnson would do “to restore the moral authority of this government”.
Few at Westminster expect a serious Tory rebellion in Thursday’s vote on an investigation by the Committee of Privileges on whether Mr Johnson has committed a contempt of parliament.
One Tory told The Independent that colleagues believe Labor is calling the division only in order to be able to tell voters during the local election campaign that their MP had backed a cover-up.
Mr Johnson himself will miss the vote as he is in India for a two-day trade visit. It is understood that there were brief discussions in No 10 over whether the trip should be pulled or shortened to avoid the embarrassment of imposing a three-line whip on MPs for a vote which the PM himself was not attending. But a senior source insisted that the long-planned trip was “definitely” going ahead as envisaged.
In a hard-hitting statement received in near-silence by Tory MPs, Sir Keir urged them to “put their conscience first, put their country first, put John Robinson first and remove the prime minister from office.
“Bring decency, honesty and integrity back into our politics. And stop the denigration of everything that this country stands for.”
One senior Tory figure said the apology would do little to change minds, but that circumstances may have saved Mr Johnson from a concerted challenge to his position before the autumn.
“The sense of uncertainty is building up over his leadership – it will come to a crisis at some point this year,” the former minister told The Independent.
“The combination of multiple purposes, the Sue Gray report, the local election results will crystallize more views. But it’s probably going to be the autumn before anything happens.”
Mr Johnson received loud cheers and banging on the tables from largely supportive Tory MPs at a meeting of backbenchers on Tuesday evening, speaking for around 40 minutes.
One rebel MP did challenge him to agree to a privileges committee probe into whether he had misled parliament if he had “nothing to hide”. But the PM repeatedly challenged his MPs to consider whether they would “rather have Labour”.
Mr Johnson also attacked “senior members of the clergy” and the BBC over criticism of the plan to send migrants to Rwanda, following condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops.
The prime minister said they had been “less vociferous” on Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, according to people in the room.
One Tory MP canopy The Independent the PM was “not brilliantly contrite” but he appeared to have done enough to keep existing backers onside.
The backbencher added: “The mood in the party is not great. I think everyone expects more ends, and that will make things more difficult. If the local elections are really bad, some will change their minds on the idea that he’s a vote winner.”