llies of Boris Johnson have rallied around him to remain as Prime Minister amid a warning that the Tories risk losing a string of “Red Wall” seats at the next General Election.
Cabinet ministers lined up to defend Mr Johnson after he became the first serving premier to be sanctioned for breaking the law when he was fined £50 on Tuesday for attending a surprise birthday party at Downing Street in June 2020.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats called for Mr Johnson to resign but he won strong support from Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, a long-term backer of the Prime Minister.
He said: “I think, as with everything in life, the Prime Minister has apologised. We have all done things that we regret. We have all done things that we get wrong, but I’m a big believer of looking at people in the round and judging them in the context of all of their actions, and not just on a single action.”
But Mr Houchen went on to warn that the partygate affair had damaged trust and that it would be an “uphill struggle” for the Conservatives to retain a number of seats in the North and Midlands, which switched from Labour to the Tories for the first time in the 2019 election.
Asked how confident he was that the Conservatives could hold on to crucial constituencies in the North-East including Darlington, Hartlepool and Redcar, Mr Houchen told LBC: “People are really hurt by the actions of the Prime Minister and they’ve taken this to heart. People sacrificed their own personal circumstances, seeing their own family members, a lot of people lost loved ones who they couldn’t mourn appropriately as a result of that and so actually it’s going to be a real uphill struggle.”
Following the Metropolitan Police’s announcement yesterday that it had issued a further 30 fines in its investigation into 12 alleged lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street and across Whitehall, Mr Johnson apologised saying he understood “the anger many will feel”.
But he made it clear he had no intention of resigning. His wife, Carrie, was also fined along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak who, after a seven-hour wait, eventually apologised and confirmed he would be staying in post.
With Parliament in recess for the Easter holidays, the Prime Minister’s immediate future will depend on whether 54 Tory MPs submit letters demanding a vote of no confidence in him. He could face further fines from the Met as he is believed to have attended at least five more of the events being investigated by police, including a “bring your own booze” gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020.
There is also the prospect of further embarrassment for the Prime Minister when senior civil servant Sue Gray publishes her full report into the affair, once the Met completes its inquiry.
This morning Tory MP for Amber Valley, Nigel Mills, stepped up the pressure on Mr Johnson, telling BBC Radio Derby that “in all conscience I don’t think the Prime Minister can survive or should survive. I don’t think his position is tenable in my view”.
But some Conservative MPs who had previously called for him to resign have said it is the wrong time to move against the PM because of the war in Ukraine.
Mr Johnson has been praised for his leadership and response to the Russian invasion although opponents point out that prime ministers have been removed from office during wars in the past.
The local elections on May 5 will, however, provide a major test of the public mood with Conservatives fearing they could suffer major losses in councils across the country. They also face a potentially tricky by-election in Wakefield if MP Imran Ahmad Khan is forced to stand down after he was found guilty on Monday of assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Much may also depend on whether Mr Johnson is found to have misled Parliament, which would normally be a resigning matter under the Ministerial Code.
Defending the Prime Minister this morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted Mr Johnson “didn’t knowingly break the law. He didn’t do it deliberately. He didn’t come to Parliament having knowingly done this”.
But former Brexit minister Lord Frost, previously a strong ally of Mr Johnson, said: “I don’t think that’s quite good enough. First of all, I think the Prime Minister is on record saying to Parliament that all the rules were observed and there were no parties and that’s obviously not the case. And I think it’s very important in our constitutional system that correct information is given to Parliament. So I hope the Prime Minister will come to the House on Tuesday and make it clear what the actual position is.”
He later added that he felt confident that Mr Johnson would lead the Conservatives into the next general election.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak do not seem to understand how “deeply offensive their lockdown breaches are”. Ms Reeves added: “He [Mr Johnson] has broken the Ministerial Code, he has no longer got the moral authority to govern. We need fresh leadership.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey renewed his calls for the Prime Minister and Chancellor to resign as the “trust in them that is so important in crises has gone”.