Boris Johnson's career hangs in balance as reports swirl he is shifting blame

Labour has 10 point lead and the chancellor is favourite to succeed the prime minister

Boris Johnson has been propped up by members of his cabinet following his humiliating apology for attending a party during lockdown. However, Chancellor Rishi Sunak offered only tepid support for his boss. AFP
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Claims that Boris Johnson was privately casting doubt on his acceptance of personal responsibility for the Downing St parties in lockdown fuelled the controversy surrounding his leadership on Thursday as polls showed haemorrhaging support for the ruling party.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was embroiled in a row with Mr Johnson's allies after he called for the prime minister to resign. He said Mr Johnson told him that he had done nothing wrong. Other MPs said Mr Johnson told colleagues in Westminster on Wednesday that he was accepting responsibility for others mistakes.

Support for Mr Johnson poured in from some cabinet members who vowed to stand by him amid the “partygate” storm as Rishi Sunak, the powerful Chancellor was among those offering a show of solidarity with the man who is battling to save his position as the leader of the country.

A YouGov poll showed a double-digit lead for the opposition Labour Party in the wake of the outcry as the opposition climbed to 38 per cent and the Conservatives slumped by 5 points from the previous survey to 28 per cent.

Mr Sunak, the second most powerful man in British politics, is seen as the most likely contender to replace Mr Johnson in the event of a leadership challenge.

And with the commander in chief facing growing calls to resign over the scandal, the chancellor’s tepid backing could be interpreted as a means to prevent his own career from being tarnished by Mr Johnson’s actions.

More than 20 ministers including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Communities Secretary Michael Gove, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Sajid Javid rallied around their boss, voicing their support publicly on social media.

Britain's Chancellor Rishi Sunak declined to give Boris Johnson his full backing in a tweet, only saying he was right to apologise and that he supports his request for patience on the inquiry. Photo: PA

Mr Sunak on the other hand waited until after 8pm to break his silence.

Rather than saying he backs the prime minister to lead the country, he said “I support his request for patience” while the inquiry into the Downing Street party allegations is conducted.

He had spent the day more than 200 miles away from the crisis engulfing Westminster, visiting Ilfracombe in Devon to welcome a jobs announcement.

Mr Sunak is the favourite to succeed Mr Johnson as prime minister, according to polls. A recent YouGov poll for Sky News showed nearly half of Conservative Party members believe the chancellor would make a better leader than Mr Johnson.

Mr Johnson’s admission that he had attended a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of Downing Street on May 20, 2020, has outraged the nation.

At the time, England was under its first nationwide shutdown and people were banned from mixing with those from other households, even outdoors.

After reports emerged that Mr Johnson and his then-fiancée Carrie were among 40 people who turned up at the party, the prime minister was left with little choice but to embark on a damage control spree and say he was sorry.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Johnson did say he was ready to accept the blame for mistakes. “I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months.

“I know the anguish they have been through — unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love.”

He acknowledge the “rage” felt by members of the public upon learning about the party and said “there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.”

However, he stopped short of admitting he and members of staff had broken the rules set by his government and instead said people should wait for the findings of the inquiry being conducted by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant.

His apology did little to quell unrest among Conservative back bench MPs who fear his poor choice of actions have tarnished the ruling party’s reputation.

Critics described Mr Johnson’s comments a “boyfriend’s apology” — suggesting he is only sorry he got caught attending the party, not that he went in the first place.

Mr Ross fears the loss of Conservative support in Scotland, where the locally elected Scottish contingent have supported his resignation call. In response Mr Johnson's close ally Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the Scottish leader as a lightweight. "I have big political differences with Douglas Ross, but even I am not as derogatory about him as his own Tory colleagues are being," said Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister.

The health secretary sought to divert attention away from “partygate” by turning to the country's battle against Covid-19.

“I completely understand why people feel let down. The PM did the right thing by apologising,” said Mr Javid. “Now we need to let the investigation complete its work. We have so much to get on with including rolling out boosters, testing and antivirals — so we can live with Covid.”

Ms Truss also came out in support of the prime minister, with a tweet leaving no doubts about where her loyalties lie.

As the nation reeled from the scandal, she said Mr Johnson “is delivering for Britain — from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth.” She made clear she would “stand behind the prime minister 100 per cent as he takes our country forward.”

Dominic Raab, who was demoted from foreign secretary to justice secretary in the prime minister's cabinet reshuffle last September, supported his boss in a TV interview hours after the apology.

Ms Patel gave her backing in a WhatsApp group of Conservative MPs, and outlined the work the government is doing to “level up” the country.

“Now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel and back Boris to deliver on the people's priorities,” she said.

But several Conservative politicians have called for the prime minister to resign. Caroline Nokes said Mr Johnson was “damaging” the party.

He “looks like a liability and I think he either goes now, or he goes [at the next] general election”, she added.

Updated: January 14, 2022, 7:06 AM