Former spokesman’s apology over No 10 party piles further pressure on Johnson
By Geraldine Scott, PA Political Correspondent
An apology from the Prime Minister’s former director of communications over a No 10 party the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral has heaped further pressure on Boris Johnson as another Tory MP called on him to resign.
James Slack, who until last year was Mr Johnson’s director of communications, apologised on Friday morning for the “anger and hurt” his leaving party in April 2021 had caused.
Mr Slack, who is now deputy editor-in-chief of The Sun newspaper, said he took “full responsibility” and was “deeply sorry”.
And in an emailed statement issued by The Sun’s publisher, News UK, he added: “This event should not have happened at the time that it did.”
It comes after The Telegraph reported that advisers and civil servants gathered after work for two separate events on April 16 2021, as the country was in a period of mourning after the death of Prince Philip.
The events were to mark the departures of Mr Slack and one of the Prime Minister’s personal photographers, the newspaper said.
The two events are said to have started separately and later merged.
And the newspaper reported accounts from witnesses who said alcohol was drunk and guests danced to music, with a person sent to a local shop with a suitcase to buy wine.
A Downing Street spokesperson said of Mr Slack’s event: “On this individual’s last day he gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.”
The next day, the Queen attended her husband Philip’s funeral wearing a face mask and socially distanced from her family at Windsor Castle, in line with Covid restrictions.
Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said the gatherings were “wholly unacceptable”, and confirmed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs.
On Thursday evening his Tory colleague Andrew Bridgen became the fifth MP to have publicly said they had written to committee chairman Sir Graham Brady.
But The Telegraph reported that as many as 30 letters have been submitted so far, with a total of 54 needed to trigger a vote.
However, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said people should “move on” following Mr Johnson’s apology over a previous bash on Wednesday.
Sir Roger told Sky News: “I have been described as a serial critic of the Prime Minister and, in a sense, that is true.
“My letter calling for a leadership election goes back to the Barnard Castle event when the Prime Minister failed to take what I regarded as appropriate decisions and actions to remove (former top adviser Dominic) Cummings from office, because what happened then was quite wrong.
“I decided then that if the Prime Minister was not capable of exercising the right kind of judgment, then we had to have another Prime Minister.”
Sir Roger praised Boris Johnson’s delivery of the vaccine rollout and Brexit, but added: “The problem is that the man’s judgment is flawed.”
He added: “I don’t think that the image of the Downing Street branch of the Majestic Wine Warehouse is doing us any good at all.”
Senior Conservative MP Julian Knight told Times Radio: “What I would say is that it will be charitable to say that partygate, if you like, is due to acts of extreme stupidity on behalf of those at No 10.”
Asked if that meant he thought the Prime Minister had been stupid, he said it applied to “anyone involved”.
Meanwhile, a councillor from the Sutton Coldfield Conservatives, an association in a safe Tory seat which withdrew its support for Mr Johnson on Thursday, said the move reflected “local views at the very grassroots levels”.
Councillor Simon Ward told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The conversation we had last night … was really about what I think we have the right to expect from our leaders and the standards of leadership we expect from them, and the trust that we put in them.”
He said: “This is about what the right thing is for politics, what the right thing is for our leaders, how this reflects on our country as well, and it’s just massively disappointing and it reflects very, very poorly on us as a nation as well.”
But security minister Damian Hinds denied Mr Johnson was hiding from scrutiny by saying he had to reduce his social contacts after a close family member tested positive for coronavirus.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson would be taking precautions until Tuesday after he cancelled a planned visit on Thursday.
Although the legal requirement to self-isolate does not apply to vaccinated contacts, they are advised to take daily tests and “limit close contact with other people outside your household”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has called on Mr Johnson to publicly address the latest party allegations.
Mr Hinds told Times Radio: “Well, I think you are advised to reduce social contacts to the extent you can.
“The Prime Minister was, look, in front of 650 Members of Parliament on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, he has been absolutely available to be questioned, to be scrutinised, as of course our leaders must.”
Mr Hinds said he had been “shocked” by the party claims, and that they would now form part of an investigation by senior official Sue Gray.
And he added that Mr Slack’s statement “doesn’t change the fact that we need to get to the bottom of … we need to hear the full set of facts about this, that particular evening but also the other events and gatherings”.
At the time of the two newly-reported gatherings on April 16, Government guidance said: “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble. You can meet outdoors, including in gardens, in groups of six people or two households.”
It brings the total number of parties or gatherings alleged to have happened across Whitehall during restrictions to 14.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020, during the first coronavirus lockdown, but insisted he believed it was a work event and could “technically” have been within the rules.
Members of the Government urged Mr Johnson’s critics to wait for the findings of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgment after Tory MPs began publicly calling for him to quit.
The Times reported that the inquiry was expected to find no evidence of criminality but that the investigation could censure Mr Johnson for a lack of judgment.
The newspaper said Ms Gray was expected to avoid concluding whether the Prime Minister breached the ministerial code, as this would fall outside her remit.
But she is set criticise the culture in Downing Street, it said.
The Metropolitan Police said there is no change to its position on investigating Downing Street parties amid fresh allegations of more gatherings taking place.