The chair of the UK Conservative party, Oliver Dowden, admitted on Sunday that he was “angered” by allegations of parties being held within Downing Street during the pandemic, but argued that Boris Johnson should remain in office, as he hinted at a shake-up of Whitehall culture.
The past week has seen a flurry of bruising headlines for the government, including reports that two alcohol-fuelled parties were held at No 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral and allegations that the prime minister encouraged his staff to partake in after work “wine time Fridays” for staff to “let off steam”.
Speaking to Sky News, Dowden said that he understood the public’s disgust over the reports. “I don’t diminish for a second that the kind of events that we’ve seen were totally wrong — I was angered by them, my constituents were angered about them, the whole country was angered by them,” he said.
The former culture secretary said that “in order to move on” it would be vital for Sue Gray’s inquiry into the alleged parties to establish the “full facts of what happened”.
Gray, a senior civil servant, is currently investigating the alleged lockdown parties, which took place between May 2020 and April 2021, with her inquiry likely to focus on the drinking culture within Whitehall as well as the leadership.
Dowden said: “I can tell you that the prime minister is genuinely committed, both in demonstrating his remorse and apology for what happened, but also in taking steps to ensure that we address the kind of culture in Downing Street that enabled something like that to happen.”
His comments follow growing alarm among senior Tories regarding Johnson’s handling of the crisis and his viability as party leader, as the public backlash against the Conservatives grows.
A total of six conservative MPs have publicly called for Johnson to resign, including the MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, who over the weekend argued that Johnson had lost the “moral authority” to lead, adding that he had begun to receive hundreds of emails from his constituents over the issue.
This sentiment was echoed by former children’s minister Tim Loughton, who on Saturday said that he had “regretfully come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s position is now untenable”.
“Frankly the issue for me is not how many sausage rolls or glasses of prosecco the prime minister actually consumed,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “The reason for my conclusion in calling for him to stand down is the way that he has handled the mounting revelations in the last few weeks.”
While he refrained from calling for the prime minister to go, former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith on Sunday described the reports of coronavirus parties in Whitehall as “unforgivable”, adding that it pointed to a working culture that has become “lazy and slack”.
“You know, most businesses wouldn’t allow what was going on in the offices, even though people have been under pressure,” he told Sky News.
The opposition Labour party have also in recent days ramped up their calls for Tory MPs to oust the prime minister.
“I think the prime minister broke the law. I think he then lied about what had happened,” Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC. “We’re now a country paralysed by the weakness of the prime minister. That’s why in the national interest he has to go.”
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