Downing Street was forced to issue an unprecedented public apology to the Queen on Friday over parties held in No 10 on the eve of her husband’s funeral, amid mounting fury from grassroots Tories.
Conservative MPs will hold crisis talks over the weekend about how to respond to allegations of a party culture in Westminster while the rest of the country was in lockdown.
The civil servant Sue Gray, who is investigating the allegations, is now understood to be looking at three more events, two held on the night before Prince Philip’s funeral on 16 April 2021 and one held on 17 December 2020.
In total 13 parties held on government premises while coronavirus restrictions were in place – most of them in Downing Street – have been disclosed. However allegations in the Mirror have said that events in No 10 became so regular they were dubbed “wine-time Fridays” and staff bought a drinks fridge to store their alcohol. The paper claims that Boris Johnson attended a “handful” of the events at a time when indoor socialising was banned.
Senior figures in a string of Conservative constituency associations told the Guardian that support for the prime minister was draining away. Mark Rowley, chairman of the Kettering Conservative Association, said: “At a local level, we’re losing members. People are just not renewing their membership, or they’re actively cancelling their membership. So people are starting to talk with their feet.”
“Personally, I think he should resign,” he said, adding that he had written to the Conservative chair, Oliver Dowden, to express his members’ “dismay”.
Martin Trollope-Bellew, chair of the Grantham and Stamford Conservatives and once a staunch supporter of Johnson, said “it appears the wheels are coming off”.
“Some of the members, the longstanding members, are being very vocal about saying he ought to go,” he said, although added he would be waiting until the result of Gray’s investigation before taking a stance.
Richard Clewer, the Tory leader of Wiltshire council, said: “It’s critical we follow the guidance that public health put out as leaders and politicians – no questions asked, we should.
“There has clearly been a significant failure of management inside No 10. I don’t know who that sits with, but I guess leadership comes from the top.”
On Friday night a poll released by Savanta Comres gave Labour a 10-point lead, on 42 points against 32 for the Conservatives.
Johnson chose to make no public statement on Friday, after news emerged of two leaving parties held in No 10 on 16 April 2021.
Instead, his deputy spokesperson told journalists: “It’s deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning, and No 10 has apologised to the palace for that.”
He declined to say whether Johnson would apologise in person to the Queen at his next private audience with her, but said the prime minister recognised the public’s “significant anger”.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said: “An apology isn’t the only thing the prime minister should be offering the palace today. Boris Johnson should do the decent thing and resign.”
Two leaving parties in No 10, details of which emerged in the Daily Telegraph, involved a case of wine bottles, and continued into the early hours of the morning in the Downing Street garden.
The prime minister did not attend the parties, and his spokesperson said he was not aware they were taking place.
Johnson has not appeared in public since prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, when he apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering on 20 May 2020, but insisted he believed it was a “work event”.
The prime minister’s spokesperson has suggested Johnson is exercising caution after a close family member tested positive for Covid – though government guidance no longer obliges double-vaccinated people to isolate.
It also emerged on Friday that Johnson “commuted” back and forth between Downing Street and Chequers in the first few days of lockdown in March 2020, when the public were being told to “stay at home”.
Tortoise reported that the prime minister travelled between his two residences until 27 March, despite ordering a full lockdown on 23 March. A Downing Street spokesperson said: “At that time Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contact.
“In line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her they were based at Chequers during this period, with the prime minister commuting to Downing Street to work.”
Johnson’s cabinet colleagues have agreed to wait until Gray’s report is published before deciding what action should be taken.
One minister said it could still go either way. “If Sue Gray doesn’t come up with anything more than we already know, and it concludes the events were not illegal, then maybe he could still find a way of recovering his mojo.” But the minister said equally Johnson was at a point of “very great danger”.
Backbench Conservative MPs said on Friday that his departure had most likely been hastened by the latest revelations. “I suspect it will bring forward the ‘when’,” said one former minister.
MPs said they would be having calls and Zoom meetings over the weekend to discuss strategy.
News of yet another party emerged on Friday, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that leaving drinks were held for the head of the Covid taskforce, Kate Josephs, on 17 December 2020. Josephs, who is chief executive of Sheffield city council, issued a statement saying she was “truly sorry”.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, which represents senior civil servants, expressed concern that what he called the “selective leaking” of incidents was “increasingly designed to push the blame on to civil servants.”
“Everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, but clearly those in leadership positions set the tone and expectation,” he said. “I would hope – and expect – that the investigation will ensure responsibility and accountability are reflected fairly and proportionately, regardless of position.”
James Slack, Johnson’s former head of communications, issued his own apology on Friday after it was reported that one of the 16 April events was a leaving party to mark his exit as he left to take up a post as deputy editor of the Sun. He said: “I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused. This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.”