Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued the Metropolitan Police issuing more than 100 fines over the partygate scandal is a “non-story”.
It was announced on Thursday that the force had made around 50 further fixed penalty notice referrals as part of its investigation into possible lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and across Whitehall.
The latest tranche of fines left Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie and the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case unscathed.
Mr Rees-Mogg played down the importance of the development on Friday, questioning whether “the rules were right in the first place”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: “I’m afraid I think this is a non-story. I mean, the BBC has absolutely loved it but what is important is that we get on with the business of government.”
Pressed on whether he had seen that people including bereaved families were “devastated” they had observed the Government’s rules while those in power were breaking them, he said: “I think people were upset.
“I think this was an important story in February when it first became known and that there was great concern, and there was a feeling of people who were bereaved, particularly, about it.”
He added: “We need to look at whether these rules were right in the first place in case we have a pandemic again because I think they were too restrictive.”
It comes after former Conservative foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the Tories have “a big mountain to climb” to win another term as he refused to rule out a contest for the top job before the 2024 election.
Amid the episode’s fallout and following bruising losses in last week’s local elections, Mr Hunt told The Times Magazine it was not the “right time” for a leadership change due to the war in Ukraine.
“But I would be very open with you that I don’t rule out a return in the future,” he added.
Speaking to Times Radio, he also said the “setbacks” the party suffered in the local elections were not just “mid-term blues” but reflected the cost-of-living crisis.
“Underneath it, I think the reason that we got such a kicking was economic concerns that many families had,” he said.
“We are faced with a situation now where we have very, very low underlying growth in the economy.
“To win an election, the Conservative Party has to promise a well-funded NHS and the prospect of tax cuts. If we make people choose between one or the other, we’re not going to win the election.”
The number of partygate fines issued by the Met now stands at more than 100 – with Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie and Chancellor Rishi Sunak hit with fixed penalty notices in April over a birthday party held for the Prime Minister in No 10’s Cabinet Room in June 2020.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson broke his own rules on a “record-breaking scale”, adding that “Britain deserves better”.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said following the Met’s update that neither the PM nor Cabinet Secretary Simon Case were among those fined in the latest batch.
The Prime Minister confirmed he was not one of the most recent recipients, nor was his wife, following a Cabinet away day in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday.
Earlier, ministers dodged questions on whether they still had faith in the PM when asked about the latest development.
Home Secretary Priti Patel failed to say whether or not she still supported Mr Johnson. Health Secretary Sajid Javid also chose not to answer when asked why the PM would not resign, despite Sir Keir Starmer’s promise to do so if he is handed a fixed penalty notice over similar allegations.
There have been ongoing calls for the PM to resign over the saga from opposition MPs, as well as his own back benches, but he has repeatedly said he is determined to get on with the job.
In addition to the Scotland Yard probe and the investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the partygate claims, the PM is facing a third inquiry by the Privileges Committee into whether he misled Parliament with his repeated assurances that Covid rules were followed in No 10.