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12 January 2022

Boris Johnson is determined to cling on – and what else we learned from PMQs

The silence of Conservative MPs spoke loudest of all during today’s remarkable exchanges.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson did attend the Downing Street party on 20 May 2020

“Mr Speaker, I want to apologise,” Boris Johnson began at today’s PMQs as he finally addressed the storm that has been building over whether he attended a drinks party in the garden of No 10 on 20 May 2020, when large gatherings were illegal.

“I went into that garden just after 6pm on 20 May 2020 to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working,” the Prime Minister admitted to the chamber. His defence? “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

He issued an apology of sorts for the events of that evening, wishing it had been “done differently”. But throughout the questioning, he continued to frame this as ultimately a problem of the conduct of Downing Street staff.

Keir Starmer finally called for Boris Johnson to resign

The Labour leader called for the Prime Minister to resign for the first time today and several times in a combative, scathing performance from Keir Starmer. (Johnson faced the same repeated calls from the leaders of the SNP and Alliance Party and other back-bench MPs.) “His defence – that he didn’t realise he was at a party,” the Labour leader said to laughter, “is so ridiculous it’s actually offensive to the British public.” Starmer also managed to sidestep parliamentary convention against calling other MPs liars by asking if the Prime Minister understands why many members of the public will think that he is “lying through his teeth”. This is the strongest a leader of the opposition can be within the rules of the chamber, and a sign that Labour is no longer holding anything back in its attacks on Johnson’s behaviour.

Boris Johnson is determined to cling on…

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“All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others, so that the full facts can be established,” the Prime Minister said at the end of his opening remarks, in a comment that could have been addressed as much to his own backbenchers as to the Labour leader or the general public. He repeated this on several occasions and accused Starmer and others of making a “political point” by asking whether he would resign sooner. Johnson hopes he will be given the political space to stay in place until the findings of that inquiry.

…but Conservative MPs may have other ideas

Both Keir Starmer and the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford posed the central question hanging over Boris Johnson’s future: will the British public remove him, slowly and painfully, down the line at the next general election, or will Conservative MPs do so sooner? As Labour MP Chris Bryant pointed at the Conservative backbenchers sitting behind Johnson, noting how the Prime Minister is embarrassing them, everyone was aware that Johnson’s fate rests in their hands. Tory MPs looked haunted and deflated, arms crossed and sitting in stony silence. Their silence spoke loudest of all during this PMQs. 

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