Fresh claims of chaotic lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street have emerged as Boris Johnson braces himself for the publication of a potentially explosive report on the scandal.
On the eve of the expected release of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s Partygate report, a series of No 10 insiders told BBC Panorama that they felt the gatherings were condoned by the prime minister, as he was “grabbing a glass for himself”.
And an exclusive Savanta poll for The Independent found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of voters believe Mr Johnson should resign if he is heavily criticized in the Gray report.
In findings which will trouble Conservative MPs anxious about holding on to their seats in the next general election, more than a quarter (26 per cent) of those who backed the Tories in 2019 said they were less likely to do so again if Mr Johnson stays on as leader.
One Tory critic of the PM told The Independent it was “urgent” that MPs move against him by submitting letters of no confidence in his leadership, while another said it was clear Mr Johnson was now an “electoral liability” who would drag the party down in future ballots.
speaking to Panoramathree current and former Downing Street staffers described gatherings known as “Wine-Time Fridays” where bins would overflow with empty bottles of alcohol and No10 would be left a “mess”, with some revellers staying overnight.
They said the culture was set by Mr Johnson himself, claiming he “wanted to be liked” and for staff to be able to “let their hair down”.
The details followed the publication of a leaked photograph showing Mr Johnson raising a glass at a leaving do for former spin doctor Lee Cain eight days after the implementation of England’s second lockdown.
Amid growing backbench concern about the impact of the Partygate revelations on the PM’s standing among voters, one senior MP told The Independent: “The whole thing is broken. He’s got to go.”
Meanwhile, another veteran backbencher, Sir Roger Gale, said: “I think we are discovering that from being an electoral asset, he is becoming an electoral liability – something my colleagues may want to take on board. We can’t go on lurching from crisis to crisis.”
The Savanta poll found that 46 per cent of voters believe Johnson should have resigned after receiving a police fine for breaking Covid laws, with a further 20 per cent saying he should do so only if heavily criticized in the Gray report. Some 47 of those who voted Tory in 2019 said he should go if condemned by Gray, against 46 per cent who want him to stay.
Fewer than one voter in five (19 per cent) believes Mr Johnson has told the truth about parties at 10 Downing Street, compared to an overwhelming 67 per cent who think he lied. And 37 per cent said it would make them less likely to back the Tories if he remains leader.
One MP who has submitted a letter of no confidence in the PM told The Independent: “This poll tallies with what I am hearing on the doorstep. My colleagues urgently need to consider not just the moral implications of Partygate but the electoral implications as well.”
The Gray report will detail 16 events held in 10 Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021, at a time when Britons had been told to stay at home and avoid social contact except for essential work reasons.
In an interim report in January, the senior civil servant blasted “failures of leadership” at No 10 and said some of the behavior described was “difficult to justify” at a time when the public were under such tight restrictions.
Around 30 senior individuals have been warned they will be named for possible criticism in the full report, which was delayed for four months while police conducted their own investigation.
Downing Street was forced to deny reports that Mr Johnson had suggested at a meeting earlier this month that Ms Gray could ditch the full report, asking her: “Is there much point in doing it now that it’s all out there?”
The PM’s official spokesperson told reporters he “did not recognize” the account, adding: “The prime minister did not ask her to drop the report or not proceed with the report. It was the prime minister who commissioned the report and he wants the report to be published.”
It is expected that the report will be published within hours of being handed over to Mr Johnson, who will then make a statement to MPs before facing Conservative backbenchers in a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories which could be crucial to deciding his fate.
Committee chair Sir Graham Brady must call a vote on the leadership if he receives 54 no confidence letters from MPs, with Mr Johnson then needing a majority of MPs’ votes to survive.
Some 13 MPs have publicly declared they have submitted letters, though some may have withdrawn them, while others could have done so privately, Rumors circulating in Westminster on Tuesday suggested that Sir Graham may have amassed as many as 40 letters, though he never confirms the figure until the threshold is passed.
Today’s Savanta poll found continued dissatisfaction with Mr Johnson’s performance as prime minister, though his overall rating of -26 (34 per cent thinking he was doing well and 60 per cent badly) was slightly improved on the -28 score he recorded in April.
But there was no clear frontrunner to succeed him, with voters choosing Mr Johnson as the best available Tory leader on 22 per cent, ahead of Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt on 8 and Liz Truss or Sajid Javid on 6. Some 44 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 said Mr Johnson was their favored leader.
And Labour’s lead over the Tories remained at six points, with Keir Starmer’s party on 40 per cent (unchanged since a similar poll in April), Conservatives on 34 (unchanged) and Liberal Democrats 10 (down one).
Sir Keir Starmer’s satisfaction rating of -3 was better than that of any government minister polled.
But almost half of those questioned (48 per cent) agreed that Starmer should quit as Labor leader – as he has promised to do – if fined by Durham Police for sharing beers and curry with staff under Covid restrictions.
Voters overwhelmingly – 59 per cent to 17 per cent – said that the so-called “Beergate” incident involving the Labor leader was less serious than the Partygate events at No 10.
– Savanta questioned 2,244 British adults on 21-22 May.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.