Boris Johnson has apologised over his handling of the Chris Pincher row as Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid handed in their resignations.
The Prime Minister told reporters he should have sacked Mr Pincher when he was told about the claims against him when he was a Foreign Office minister in 2019.
Asked if that was an error, Mr Johnson said: “I think it was a mistake and I apologise for it. In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.
“I apologise to everybody who has been badly affected by it. I want to make absolutely clear that there’s no place in this Government for anybody who is predatory or who abuses their position of power.”
But only minutes after the apology, both the Chancellor Sunak and Health Secretary Javid dramatically announced their resignations from Cabinet, saying they had lost confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
This contradicted earlier claims from No 10 that the Prime Minister was not aware of specific allegations.
Speaking to reporters in his Commons office, Mr Johnson also did not deny joking: “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature."
He said: “What I can tell you is that, if I look at the background of this and why I regret it so much, is that about three years ago there was a complaint made against Chris Pincher in the Foreign Office, the complaint was cleared up, he apologised.
“It was raised with me, orally, I was briefed on what had happened. If I had my time again I would think back on it and recognise that he wasn't going to learn a lesson and he wasn't going to change and I regret that.
“It was something that was only raised with me very cursorily but I wish that we had - I, in particular - had acted on it and that he had not continued in government because he then went on, I'm afraid, to behave - as far as we can see, according to the allegations that we have - very, very badly.”
The PM's official spokesman had earlier said Number 10 has "subsequently been able to ascertain that [Mr Johnson] was informed in some form" about groping claims in 2019.
Previously the PM's team had insisted Mr Johnson was unaware of official complaints made against the Tamworth MP who resigned as deputy chief whip last week following allegations he inappropriately touched two men at a private members’ club.
It follows former leading senior civil servant Lord McDonald accusing Number 10 of lying in an explosive letter on Tuesday morning.
In it he said the Prime Minister was briefed “in person” about the investigation into the disgraced MP in 2019, when Mr Pincher was a Foreign Office minister.
He was promoted to the whips office in February.
Asked why No10 had originally the PM was not aware of any “specific allegations” about Mr Pincher, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “At that point, at the end of last week, [Mr Johnson] hadn’t established that he had been informed of [the Foreign Office case] in 2019 and we have subsequently been able to establish that he was given an update in some form about that.”
Asked if Mr Johnson had lied, the spokesman added: “[It’s] more a function of the fact that some of the facts around this have taken time to establish.
"At the time last week that was the Prime Minister’s view. You will appreciate that it takes time to establish that he was briefed albeit not in a formal meeting about this and that’s why we sought to update on Monday.
“It’s important to remember this dates back a number of years”
Asked if the Prime Minister had forgotten, the spokesman said: “I wouldn’t characterise it that way…sometimes these issues which are raised…it takes time to establish the exact course of events.”
Lord McDonald, who was permanent secretary at the Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020, claimed the denial was “not true”.
In a letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he said a group of people had made allegations about Mr Pincher’s conduct “similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club” when he was at the Foreign Office and added: “In the summer of 2019 shortly after he was appointed minister of state at the Foreign Office, a group of officials complained to me about Mr Pincher’s behaviour.
“I discussed the matter with the relevant official at the Cabinet Office. An investigation upheld the complaint; Mr Pincher apologised and promised not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour.”
Lord McDonald added that “Mr Pincher was not exonerated” by the investigation.
He also acknowledged it was unusual for a former top civil servant to write to the complaints commissioner and publicise the letter.
“What I’ve seen and read over the last few days, I knew to be wrong," he told the BBC. "And you know, things get to a point where you have to do the right thing.”
Mr Pincher quit on Thursday over allegations he had drunkenly groped two men at the Carlton Club the previous night.
He previously resigned from the whips’ office in 2017 over claims he made unwanted advances to a young activist, but was reinstated after being cleared by a party investigation.
Mr Pincher has denied the allegations and said he is seeking ‘‘professional medical support’’.
The storm over Mr Pincher is the latest sleaze controversy to hit the Conservative party.