Rishi Sunak leaves Boris Johnson in limbo as he fails to offer full support

Rishi Sunak declined on Wednesday night to fully endorse Boris Johnson until he had seen the results of the probe into allegations of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

After eight hours of public silence following the Prime Minister’s apology to the House of Commons, the Chancellor issued a carefully worded message on Twitter.

Mr Sunak, widely tipped by colleagues as a potential successor as Tory leader, said that Mr Johnson “was right to apologise” for attending a gathering on May 20 2020.

The Chancellor added: “I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her inquiry.” Ms Gray is the civil servant carrying out the investigation into rule-breaking parties.

I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanForJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation.

The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.

— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) January 12, 2022

Mr Sunak’s lukewarm message came after he failed to attend the Commons to hear the Prime Minister’s apology, instead travelling to Ilfracombe on what his advisers said was a pre-arranged trip.

It comes amid speculation Mr Johnson could face a no-confidence vote after backbench MPs and Scottish members of his party publicly called for him to resign.

Cabinet ministers rallied to shore up support for Mr Johnson following the Commons apology on Wednesday, in which he said: "I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months.

"I know the anguish they have been through – unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want, or to do the things they love.

"I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules."

Mr Sunak’s message fell short of the public support shown by other Cabinet ministers, who toured television studios defending the Prime Minister and praising his record in office.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, was also initially absent in issuing a message of support for Mr Johnson, remaining silent in public after sitting by his side in the Commons.

She eventually issued the following statement endorsing the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is delivering for Britain – from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth. I stand behind the Prime Minister 100% as he takes our country forward.

— Liz Truss (@trussliz) January 12, 2022

The apparent reluctance to rush to the side of Mr Johnson from the two Tory MPs most tipped to take over as leader capped off a day of political danger for the Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson apologised during Prime Minister’s Questions for a Downing Street garden gathering that he attended in May 2020, but argued he believed it had been a work event.

Within hours, Tory MPs had gone public with calls for his resignation for the first time over what has been dubbed “partygate”, marking a significant new phase in the growing rebellion.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, became the first MP to call for Mr Johnson to quit after having a 15-minute phone call with the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon.

“I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives,” Mr Ross said.

Mr Ross’s position was followed by support from Baroness Davidson, his predecessor as Scottish Tory leader, and two-thirds of the Conservative members in the Scottish Parliament.

The lack of support in Scotland has led to renewed fears that the party could split, with Scottish Tories forming their own party.

Other Tory MPs called for a prime ministerial resignation – including William Wragg, who said MPs were "worn out defending the indefensible”, and Sir Roger Gale, who dubbed Mr Johnson a political “dead man walking".

Caroline Nokes, the Romsey and Southampton North MP, also called for a resignation. When asked whether he should resign now, she said: “Absolutely.”

She said Mr Johnson was "damaging the Conservative brand" and that the Conservative Party was "bigger than one man … that one man is dragging the party down now".

Scores of other Conservative MPs made dire warnings in public and private about Mr Johnson’s political fate, including that he may not fight the next election as Tory leader.

Estimates of how many letters of no confidence have been submitted to the 1922 Committee range from below a dozen to above 30.

Tory MPs submit such letters secretly, with 54 needed to trigger a leadership vote. There was a widespread belief among Tories that new letters will be submitted this week.

:question:Can Boris Johnson survive Partygate?

Listen back to our Twitter Spaces with @Tony_Diver, @OliviaUtley, @mutazamd and @djknowles22 here :point_down:https://t.co/i3p7ycjZHZ

— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) January 12, 2022

With the party mood fractious in Westminster, Cabinet ministers took to the airwaves and WhatsApp groups of Conservative MPs to try to convince colleagues to stay.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, all spoke to broadcasters to express support.

Other Cabinet ministers including Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, and Simon Clarke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, posted encouraging messages in WhatsApp groups with Tory MPs.

But throughout the day, focus fell on Mr Sunak and Ms Truss – the two MPs being most closely watched Tory whips over leadership hopes and their lack of public comment.

Labour dubbed Mr Sunak “the invisible Chancellor” over his absence from the Commons. 

Rishi Sunak was not in the House of Commons for Boris Johnson's apology, instead visiting a biotech business in Devon

Credit: Simon Walker/HM Treasury

But neither Cabinet minister had either tweeted a message of support or given a clip to television cameras backing Mr Johnson by 8pm, fuelling speculation about where they stood.

Mr Sunak Tweeted his message at 8.11pm, saying: “I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanForJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation. 

“The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”

Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – who was serving under Mr Sunak in the Treasury until September – issued a similarly worded message on Twitter.

The PM did the right thing by apologising in Parliament. We should now let the investigation complete its work and I support the PM’s request for patience so that Sue Gray is able to do so.

— Steve Barclay (@SteveBarclay) January 12, 2022

The comments fell short of the praise offered by other Cabinet ministers by not praising Mr Johnson’s record in office or giving him a full endorsement.

Mr Gray, a senior civil servant, is interviewing government officials and looking at communications about parties. She is expected to report back within weeks.

But Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, broke with his position in recent months and explicitly called on the Prime Minister to resign.

Sir Keir said: "We’ve got the Prime Minister attending Downing Street parties – a clear breach of the rules. We’ve got the Prime Minister putting forward a series of ridiculous denials which he knows are untrue – a clear breach of the ministerial code.

"That code says ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.

"The party’s over, Prime Minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out or will he do the decent thing and resign?"

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, and Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, also called for Mr Johnson to resign.

Downing Street spokesmen later declined to answer questions about specifics of the May 20 2020 garden gathering, arguing Ms Gray must be allowed to complete her inquiry.

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