Allies of Boris Johnson have lashed out at Tory MPs calling for the Prime Minister to resign after the House of Commons ordered a third inquiry into lockdown parties in Downing Street.
Senior backbencher Tobias Ellwood said there had been “a huge breach of trust” with the British people as he called on Conservative MPs to force a change of leadership.
But that drew a furious accusation of disloyalty from Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, who said there is “no question” of the Prime Minister stepping down.
He said Mr Johnson is entitled to their support after leading them to a sweeping general election victory in 2019.
“There are a number of colleagues across Parliament who have never really supported the Prime Minister,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“If the Prime Minister stepped off Westminster Bridge and walked on top of the water they would say he couldn’t swim. That is a fact.
“The reality is that it is only two years ago since we won a majority of 80 seats, the biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
“What the Prime Minister is saying is ‘I led you to that victory, I have got business I want to do’.”
However Mr Ellwood, a former minister and chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said there is a growing realisation in the party that matters cannot continue as they are.
He predicted there will be a “steady trickle” of letters from Tory MPs to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, calling for a leadership contest.
“We must stop drinking the Kool-Aid that’s encouraging us to think this is all going to disappear and that we can all move on,” he told Sky News.
“I’m afraid the absence of discipline, of focus and leadership in Number 10 during that lockdown period has led to a huge breach of trust with the British people.
“So it’s beholden upon all Conservative MPs then to take matters into their own hands, and I think this is where things will go, particularly as we have more bad news to follow.”
An extraordinary 24 hours in Parliament.
It’s time to stop drinking the Kool-Aid.
— Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) April 21, 2022
The seething row totally overshadowed Mr Johnson’s much-trumpeted visit to India for trade talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At a closing press conference in New Delhi, Mr Johnson largely sidestepped questions about the issue, although he insisted he will still be in office by Diwali in October – which he has set as the target date for a trade deal with India.
Asked whether he is a “cat with nine lives”, Mr Johnson replied: “We had a pretty good kick of the cat yesterday.”
His comments followed a chaotic day at Westminster which saw ministers forced to abandon plans to try to delay a vote on an inquiry into whether Mr Johnson misled Parliament in the face of a threatened Tory revolt.
Instead MPs nodded through an opposition motion referring Mr Johnson to the Commons Privileges Committee.
It was reported that Mr Johnson intervened personally from India to drop a Government amendment after six junior ministers threatened to resign.
In the Commons, influential former minister and leading Brexiteer Steve Baker said the Prime Minister needs to realise the “gig’s up”.
The committee will not begin its inquiry until the Metropolitan Police have completed their investigations into breaches of Covid regulations in Whitehall.
The Prime Minister has already received one fine – as has his wife Carrie and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – over a birthday gathering in No 10 and there are fears more could follow.
The motion passed by the Commons stated Mr Johnson had made statements that “appear to amount to misleading the House” when giving past assurances that Downing Street had complied with coronavirus laws.
The Privileges Committee will now consider whether he is in contempt of Parliament for intentionally misleading the Commons – a breach of the ministerial code that has traditionally been considered a resignation issue.
Mr Burns, however, said he does not believe Mr Johnson had lied to MPs and that the Prime Minister is confident he will be cleared once the full facts are known.
“There is no question of the Prime Minister going,” he told Sky News.
“He remains confident that when people can see the full context of what happened it will be clear that he was straightforward, he said to the House in good faith that he believed the rules were followed.”