Boris Johnson is committed to changing the culture at Downing Street that led to staff partying and drinking while the country was in lockdown, the Conservative party co-chair Oliver Dowden has said.
Dowden said the prime minister felt a “sincere sense of regret” over what happened and that he was “committed to upping our game”.
But Dowden also said it would be wrong for him to step down as prime minister, and that a leadership contest was not what the public wanted.
Dowden was speaking on Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday as Conservative MPs continued to consider whether Johnson should be forced out of office because of the lockdown-busting partying at No 10, and its dire impact on the party’s poll ratings, and his own.
Many MPs have said they want to read the findings of the report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray into what happened before taking a final decision. Gray’s report is expected within the next fortnight.
In his interview, Dowden said that when Johnson responded to the findings of the report in a statement in the Commons, he would “make sure that we address the kind of culture that has allowed [the partying] to happen in the first place”.
Dowden did not say what the necessary “change of culture” would involve, but it is expected that some senior officials will leave, particularly Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, who sent the email to No 10 staff inviting them to the party on 20 May 2020 attended by Johnson himself.
It has also been reported that Johnson will ban drinking at No 10, in response to suggestions that the parties were a consequence of an end-of-day drinking regime that has become normalised for some staff.
Dowden rejected the argument that Johnson was so compromised by the rule-breaking that he would have to resign. He said he “should of course remain as our prime minister” because of the leadership he had shown over Covid, in particular in ordering the mass booster programme and resisting calls for a lockdown before Christmas.
Dowden also said: “Going through a period of divisive leadership contest … is not the sense that I get of what British people want us to be focusing on.”
During his interview, Dowden repeatedly stressed his own anger with what had been happening in No 10. But he seemed deeply uncomfortable when Phillips said that, on the weekend of Prince Philip’s funeral, which was proceeded the night before by two parties had taking place at Downing Street, his own daughter had died.
Phillips was close to breaking down as he recalled how, shortly before his daughter died after a long struggle with anorexia, he had been unable to meet up with her and other members of his family because they were obeying the Covid restrictions then in place.
He said his daughter had “stuck to the spirit and the letter of the rules”, that thousands of people had had similar experiences, and that promises about a civil servant’s inquiry would not address their anger.
In response, Dowden said he knew how people had suffered. “It is totally wrong if there has been any way in which those rules have not been fully obeyed in Downing Street,” he said.
On Saturday, Tim Loughton became the sixth Tory MP to call publicly for Johnson’s resignation, saying that the prime minister’s reputation had suffered “terminal damage” because of the way he had responded to the partygate revelations over recent weeks.
“Obfuscation, prevarication and evasion have been the order of the day when clarity, honesty and contrition was what was needed and what the British people deserve,” Loughton said.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said on Sunday that he believed Johnson had broken the law by attending a party at Downing Street on 20 May 2020 and then lied about it.
To justify his claim that Johnson had lied, Starmer said Johnson originally told MPs he had been assured no parties took place at No 10. Then, after the private video of staff discussing a party was broadcast, the prime minister told MPs he was angry to learn about this. Then he admitted he had been at the 20 May event, and he told MPs last week that in retrospect he realised he should have stopped the gathering that evening. Starmer said that showed his initial claim to have no knowledge of partying was false.
The Labour leader said it was now “blindingly obvious” what had happened and that people did not need to wait for the Gray report to know Johnson broke the law.
He also said he expected the Gray report to set out the facts and that he was “as certain as I can be” that she would not make a ruling about whether or not the law was broken because she would consider that a judgment for others.