Boris Johnson on Wednesday suffered fresh Tory criticism of his leadership but he insisted that his attendance at Downing Street leaving drinks during Covid restrictions was important to keep staff “morale high”.
Simon Fell, the Conservative MP for Barrow, became the latest Tory to express a loss of faith in the prime minister, saying that the findings of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the partygate scandal were “a slap in the face”.
Rebel Conservatives claim that Johnson will face a vote of no confidence in his leadership of the party this month, either when MPs return to Westminster next week or later this month, if the Tories lose two key by-elections.
Fell said in a letter to constituents: “The culture that Ms Gray’s report details is unforgivable and I certainly will not be defending it.” He added that “a corrosive culture and a failure of leadership allowed this to happen, and apologising after the fact is insufficient”.
Meanwhile, Caroline Dinenage, a former minister and Tory MP for Gosport, wrote to constituents to say that while Johnson had promised to clean up the culture in Downing Street, she remained to be convinced.
She said “those at the top of any organisation must take responsibility for the culture that is permitted to pervade”, adding: “Until I see real evidence of leadership that is listening and changing, I’m afraid I’m not prepared to defend it.”
About 30 Tory MPs have publicly called for Johnson to quit or face a no-confidence vote.
Conservative MPs have returned to their constituencies during the parliamentary recess and are gradually making their feelings towards the prime minister known to their local voters.
A number of MPs, including Fell, have strongly criticised Johnson but have not said whether they have submitted a letter requesting a no-confidence vote to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories.
Johnson encountered hostile questioning on Wednesday on the Mumsnet parenting website and attempted to defend his attendance at drinks parties during Covid restrictions in Downing Street, where he said staff worked “blindingly hard”.
Asked why it was right for him to go to a leaving drinks for a departing staff member when ordinary citizens could not attend a funeral, Johnson said he was simply trying to raise morale.
“What I thought I was doing was simply doing what is right for a leader in any circumstances and that’s to thank people for their service,” he added.
Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, opened the question-and-answer session by saying that a “typical question” for Johnson was: “Why should we believe anything you say when it has been proven you are a habitual liar?”
Johnson replied that people “throw all sorts of accusations about all sorts of things” and asked for voters to judge him on his record in government.
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, insisted that in spite of growing Tory criticism of Johnson the party was not about to plunge into a no-confidence vote next week.
“I think the Westminster bubble whips this stuff up,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s not serious and significant but . . . the prime minister has dealt with all those issues,” he told Sky News.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary and a Johnson loyalist, said there was a campaign led by “one or two individuals” who were trying to bring down the prime minister.
Some allies of Johnson accused colleagues of Jeremy Hunt, former foreign secretary, of preparing behind the scenes for a possible Tory leadership contest.
A friend of Hunt said: “Number 10 should be wary of this sort of nervous briefing. In spite of numerous calls from colleagues, and indeed the wider party, Jeremy is not engaging at the moment.”
Most Tory MPs say the criticism of Johnson is not being orchestrated and reflects widespread concern across the party. Rebel MPs have included roughly equal numbers of Remainers and Leavers, with critics coming from both northern “red wall” and southern “blue wall” parliamentary seats.
The fear among the rebels is that Johnson wins any vote of no confidence and then limps on, with his authority undermined. Some 180 Tory MPs, half the parliamentary party, would have to vote against the prime minister to remove him.
“The worst-case scenario is that the letters do go in, he wins by 10 votes, and then he hobbles on damaged,” said one former cabinet minister. “I think he’d keep going even if he only won by one vote because he’s the most selfish person I’ve ever met.”
Another senior Tory MP said: “He won’t resign. I think over 100 would vote against him, but he would continue.”
In 2018, the then prime minister Theresa May won a no-confidence vote with the support of 63 per cent of Conservative MPs. But she never recovered. She was forced out of office in 2019 and replaced by Johnson.