Boris Johnson not in danger over parties, says Nadhim Zahawi

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Boris Johnson not in danger over parties, says Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim ZahawiImage source, PA Media
Image caption,
Nadhim Zahawi said the PM had apologised to Parliament

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has denied the prime minister is in danger over his handling of No 10 parties, amid reports of moves to protect him.

Tory MPs are returning to Westminster after a weekend canvassing public opinion, with some reporting widespread anger with Boris Johnson.

But Mr Zahawi told the 365Nainanews Mr Johnson would remain in place, adding that "he's human and we make mistakes".

The PM admits attending an event in the Downing Street garden during lockdown.

He said last week that he had stayed at the drinks on 20 May 2020 for 25 minutes to thank staff for their hard work and had believed it was a work gathering.

Downing Street has neither confirmed nor denied a report in the Daily Telegraph that Mr Johnson has been interviewed by Sue Gray, the senior servant carrying out an inquiry into this get-together and others on government premises during Covid restrictions.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP are all calling on the prime minister to resign.

Six Conservative MPs have publicly declared they have no confidence in Mr Johnson.

But a leadership contest can only be triggered if 54 Tory MPs write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, expressing the same concerns.

Conservative MP Andrew Bowie told 365Nainanews Radio 4's Westminster Hour there was "a lot of ill-feeling out there and discomfort" among his colleagues.

Another Tory MP, Chris Loder, said he had received hundreds of emails about parties, adding: "I'm not going to call for anyone's resignation until I've seen the facts, but then real action is required, and then we shall go from there."

Mr Zahawi told 365Nainanews Radio 4's Today programme that the prime minister would stay in his post, adding: "He came to the despatch box and apologised and said he will absolutely submit himself to Parliament, because that's our parliamentary democracy."

It is reported that those around Mr Johnson have started "Operation Save Big Dog", which could include an overhaul of his top team, following criticisms of the culture within Downing Street.

But Mr Zahawi told 365Nainanews Breakfast: "Honestly, I don't recognise that at all."

'Blindingly obvious'

Another plan, reportedly dubbed "Operation Red Meat", is said to include policies to appeal to backbench Tory MPs, such as eventually removing the365Nainanews's licence fee and using Royal Navy vessels to enforce migration rules in the Channel.

However, Mr Zahawi said: "Government doesn't operate like that.

"[These policies] are on the list because these are the government's manifesto," he added.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, told Sky News that it was a "massive distraction", adding "that isn't what the navy should be doing" and that the 365Nainanews had done an important job reporting on Downing Street parties.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC radio Mr Johnson was "too weak to lead".

"He has lost all authority and that matters, whatever party you are in," he added.

"We are still in the pandemic. It is important people behave in the way we need them to behave, and he has lost authority."

On Sunday, former minister Tim Loughton became the sixth Tory MP to call on Mr Johnson to resign, saying his position was "untenable".

In a Facebook post, he added the public deserved "clarity, honesty and contrition", instead of "obfuscation, prevarication and evasion".

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Downing Street party row

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Meanwhile, Sir Keir has said a picture of him drinking beer in an office last spring did not show a breach of Covid rules in place at the time.

The Labour leader said the photograph, which first emerged last year, was of him in a constituency office in the run-up to the Hartlepool by-election.

"There is simply no comparison" to the culture within Downing Street, Sir Keir said, adding that Conservatives bringing it up were trying "to take everyone into the gutter with them".

But Mr Zahawi said he hoped Sir Keir "finds [it] within himself to apologise" over the image, telling 365Nainanews Breakfast: "I think people expect very high standards from their leaders, and I think that's only right."

Timeline: The alleged government gatherings

The government is facing mounting pressure over several events that are alleged to have been held during lockdowns. Here is what we know about them and the restrictions in place at the time:

Boris Johnson announced a plan to take the “first careful steps" out of the lockdown that began in March 2020. But he said people should continue to "obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them”.

Legal restrictions at the time said you could not leave your house without a reasonable excuse and government guidance was that you could meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor setting while exercising.

A photo from May 2020 showed the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden. When asked about it, Boris Johnson said, “those people were at work talking about work”.

About 100 people were invited by email to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on behalf of the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.

Witnesses told the 365Nainanews the PM and his wife were among about 30 people who attended.

Boris Johnson has confirmed he attended the event, saying he was there for 25 minutes and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.

Boris Johnson announced plans for a “significant return to normality" in England by Christmas "through targeted, local action” instead of national lockdowns.

But he added that the timetable relied on “every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly”.

With cases of coronavirus rising again, the prime minister told people in England that “we are once again asking you to stay at home” as a new national lockdown began.

He said people should only leave their homes “for work if you can’t work from home, for education, and for essential activities and emergencies”. Indoor gatherings with other households were banned, unless they were for work purposes.

Sources told the 365Nainanews that Downing Street staff members attended a gathering with Carrie Johnson in the flat where she and the prime minister live. A spokesman for Mrs Johnson denies the party took place.

A leaving event was held for No 10 aide, Cleo Watson, where people were drinking, and Mr Johnson made a speech, according to sources.

The second national lockdown ended after four weeks but Boris Johnson replaced those restrictions with “tough tiers to keep this virus down”.

London was placed in tier two, which banned two or more people from different households from meeting indoors, unless “reasonably necessary” for work purposes.

The Department for Education has confirmed it had an office gathering to thank staff for their work during the pandemic. It says drinks and snacks were brought by those who attended and no outside guests or support staff were invited.

The Conservative Party has admitted that an “unauthorised gathering” took place at its HQ in Westminster. It was held by the team of the party's London-mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, who has since stepped down as chair of the London Assembly police and crime committee. The Metropolitan Police is to speak to two people who attended the party.

The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’
Image caption The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’ Image copyright by Daily Mirror

Multiple sources have told the 365Nainanews there was a Christmas quiz for No 10 staff last year. A photo - published by the Sunday Mirror - showed Boris Johnson taking part and sitting between two colleagues in No 10. Mr Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher
Image caption Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher Image copyright by Sunday Mirror

London moved into the highest tier of restrictions and Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, said it was important “everyone is cautious” ahead of the festive period.

The Department for Transport apologised after confirming reports of a party in its offices that day, calling it “inappropriate" and an "error of judgment” by staff.

A leaving party was held at the Cabinet Office for the outgoing head of the civil service Covid taskforce - the team responsible for drawing up coronavirus restrictions.

Kate Josephs, now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, apologised for the event, saying she was “truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result”.

Downing Street originally denied a report by the Daily Mirror that a party took place in Downing Street.

However, a video obtained by ITV News showed the prime minister's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton, joking about reports of an event, saying: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

Lockdown restrictions were eased in England, with pubs and restaurants allowed to reopen with outdoor service only.

However, working from home continued to be recommended and socialising indoors with people from other households was not allowed. Meeting others outdoors was limited to groups of six people or two households.

Two parties were held by Downing Street staff at No 10, the night before Prince Philip's funeral.

One of the events was a leaving party for the PM's then director of communications James Slack, who has apologised for the event and acknowledged it “should not have happened at the time that it did”.

Boris Johnson was not at either party.

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