Boris Johnson’s attempts to move on from Partygate were in tatters last night as Tory MPs continued to withhold support as the Met continued to issue more fines.
Speculation of a leadership challenge after the local government elections on May 5 was rekindled as the Tories fear the continuing attention on lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street will provoke a backlash at the polls.
One party source suggested MPs were again thinking of replacing the prime minister as No 10 officials were forced to issue a denial that Johnson had received a second fixed-penalty notice.
The Met Police had reportedly begun issuing fines to those who attended the “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party on May 20, 2020, during lockdown. Johnson has previously apologised for attending the gathering but insisted he believed it was a work event.
Earlier this month, Johnson, his wife Carrie and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined by police for breaching lockdown rules by attending a gathering to celebrate the PM’s birthday in June 2020.
The PM arrived back in the UK after a two-day trip to India where he played down the Partygate row, saying voters wanted the government to “focus on the issues on which we were elected”.
On Thursday the Met said it would not provide updates on fixed-penalty notices for Downing Street lockdown breaches until after the May elections. Senior Tories warned the prime minister was likely to face a leadership challenge if they suffered significant losses at the elections.
Allies of former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt were said to have renewed preparations for a leadership contest.
Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and elections expert, said: “I expect there will be some form of contest for the leadership at some stage, not immediately. But the support for the PM is being eroded quite markedly.
“I think they’re moving to a position of saying ‘this cannot go on and there is only one way of resolving that and that is by saying we will need some form of challenge, leadership election, whatever it may happen to be.’”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “The majority of the public are sick and tired of the story; Conservative MPs are sick and tired of the story. If they reach the decision it’s too damaging, then it’s over. I fancy the local elections and inquiry will put that to rest.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “It has now been shown, with the Partygate fine, that we have a criminal occupying Downing Street. Any decent, right-minded individual would accept their responsibility and resign.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross labelled Johnson’s behaviour over Partygate “unacceptable” but said he had his support due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. He said: “Hopefully with this investigation by the privileges committee, all the information will be out in the public domain and people will be able to get the answers to the questions that still remain.”
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