The Scottish Tory leader has called for Boris Johnson to resign, after the prime minister apologised for attending a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street, claiming he believed it was a “work event”.
Many Conservative MPs said they remained unsatisfied by Johnson’s carefully worded explanation, delivered at the start of Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions.
But Douglas Ross, who spoke to Johnson on Wednesday, is the first senior Tory figure to call publicly for the prime minister’s immediate departure. “Regretfully I have to say that his position is no longer tenable,” he told reporters.
He had demanded an explanation from the prime minister after an email emerged on Monday from the prime minister’s principal private secretary, inviting colleagues to “socially distanced drinks” on 20 May 2020, during the first Covid lockdown.
Ross said: “What we also heard from the prime minister today was an apology. And he said, with hindsight, he would have done things differently, which for me, is an acceptance from the prime minister that it was wrong, and therefore, I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in the position now where I don’t think he can continue as he leader of the Conservatives.
“The evidence is clear. People were invited to bring their own booze, to enjoy the garden in Downing Street and that is by any definition a party, a gathering that wasn’t allowed and therefore the prime minister broke his own rules.”
Ross said it is up to the prime minister how quickly he stood down and it was up to other MPs whether they pressed for a motion of no confidence in him.
“That’s up to individual MPs what they do but I think we have seen across the house some pretty quite galling stories of how people were affected either themselves or their constituents, and I think there’s a strength of feeling across the spectrum that this is a most serious issue.
“My position as an individual is that I don’t think his position as leader of the Conservatives and prime minister is tenable in the future.”
Other Tory backbenchers said Johnson’s account of the event on 20 May had bought him the right to wait for an investigation by civil servant Sue Gray, which could report as soon as next week.
Dan Poulter said he was “pleased,” Johnson had apologised, but it was “not much consolation to those of us who cared for patients on the frontline of the NHS and saw them die of Covid”.
He said the inquiry should be conducted “very quickly” and “should the PM be found to have actively mislead parliament or if he faces criminal sanction (or both) then his position would be untenable”.
The former health minister Stephen Hammond told the BBC he welcomed the fact Johnson had shown “some transparency”, in admitting mistakes had been made.
But he questioned Johnson’s explanation that he “believed implicitly” the booze-fuelled gathering he dropped into was a “work event”.
“It clearly was not a work event and that is the problem. and I think it is pretty surprising the prime minister wasn’t briefed to that effect,” Hammond said. He added that his constituents would still feel “let down” having heard “a bit of an apology” from the PM.
Julian Sturdy, the Conservative MP for York Outer, said Johnson’s claim he thought the gathering was work-related “will not wash with the British public, who at the relevant time were making significant sacrifices”, adding in a statement to the Yorkshire Post that he shares the “frustration and disappointment of the many constituents”.
In a brief statement as prime minister’s questions kicked off, Johnson said that he joined the 20 May event for about 25 minutes from around 6pm, saying that, with the No 10 garden being used as “an extension of the office” amid lockdown, he believed it was a work event.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said, arguing that the event “could be said, technically, to fall within the guidance” of the time.
Cabinet ministers appeared to be rallying round Johnson in public, with the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, tweeting that he was “right to personally apologise”, and that “the inquiry should now be allowed to its work and establish the full facts of what happened”.
The prime minister has committed to returning to the House of Commons to make a statement when Gray has reported. His press secretary declined to say on Wednesday whether he would resign, if Gray finds he breached Covid guidance.