Cabinet ministers faced questions about Boris Johnson’s behaviour during lockdown before their meeting in Downing Street to discuss the “inflationary pressures” facing the country.
As ministers entered the street, they were met with shouted questions from the waiting press pack about whether the Prime Minister had let them down after a photograph emerged of him raising a toast at a leaving do for one of his former senior aides during England’s lockdown in November 2020.
Commons Leader Mark Spencer was also asked whether Mr Johnson had misled Parliament over his assurances that Covid rules were upheld in Downing Street and for saying that there was no party on November 13 when the picture was taken.
None of the senior ministers, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, responded while heading for the famous black door.
Mr Johnson did not receive a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police, who concluded their investigation into lockdown parties in No 10 last week, for the date in question, with the picture – published by ITV – showing there were at least eight other people in the room at a time when people were banned from social mixing.
The Prime Minister did not address the photo but instead opened the Cabinet meeting by heralding the current low rate of unemployment and discussing the UK Government’s plan for pushing down inflation, which has soared to 9% in April, its highest level for 40 years.
Mr Johnson, speaking to ministers in the Cabinet Room on Tuesday, said unemployment stands at 3.7% and is at its lowest since 1974, even joking that it had never been lower in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s lifetime.
He said the “sensible, responsible steps” taken by his administration during the coronavirus pandemic has helped put the economy in a “very strong position” but highlighted how a skills shortage is contributing to inflation.
Mr Johnson said: “That strength in the economy is absolutely vital for the protection we need to give people as we go through the current turbulence with inflation, and with the pressures we’re facing on costs, particularly with energy.
“It’s having a strong economy that enables us to get through it.
“But, of course, the pressure on jobs, the shortage of labour, is also another inflationary pressure.
“And we’ve got to make sure that we are skilling people up. And it’s absolutely crucial that we do that.”
Mr Johnson said the pledge to allow people to “train and retrain throughout their lives” is vital in allowing workers to be equipped for the jobs of the future.
There have been calls in recent weeks for the Government to do more to help households with budgetary pressures caused by ballooning energy bills and food prices.
During his opening remarks, the Prime Minister did not touch on what support ministers are considering but highlighted the push to get people into work as the “Conservative answer” to boosting consumer spending power.
Praising the efforts of the Work and Pensions Secretary for helping to drive the reduction in unemployment, Mr Johnson gave a “special shout-out” to Therese Coffey for the Way To Work scheme results – a Department for Work and Pensions bid to get half a million people into employment.
Downing Street said almost 318,000 have been helped into work since the scheme was established earlier this year.
“That’s the way forward,” the Prime Minister added.
“I want to see people not on benefits, I want to see them in work – that’s the Conservative answer and that is the answer we are offering to the people of this country.”
Ms Coffey was not present at the meeting to hear the praise, with Mr Johnson joking that she was “working so hard at getting the unemployed off benefits and into work” that she had been unable to attend.