Allies of Boris Johnson have pleaded for him to be given more time as Tory MPs plotted to remove him from No 10 over the partygate row.
A group of Tories who won their seats in Mr Johnson’s 2019 election landslide appear to have lost faith in the Prime Minister, after he admitted attending a “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden during England’s first coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Johnson has insisted that “nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules” and he believed he was attending a work event.
A series of gatherings in No 10 and Whitehall are being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray, and Tory MPs were urged by ministers to wait for her report before deciding whether to move against the Prime Minister.
But reports have suggested the threshold of 54 letters from MPs that would launch a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister could be reached on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson will face MPs for Prime Minister’s Questions and will also seek to boost his position with Tory MPs and the public by announcing an easing of England’s coronavirus restrictions.
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey urged his colleagues to keep “cool heads” as he said now was not the time to change leader, with looming economic and international challenges.
Mr Heappey, previously a parliamentary aide to the Prime Minister, suggested Mr Johnson may not have fully understood the nature of the event he was going to in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020 as his diary was rigorously controlled by staff.
He told Times Radio: “The first time that what he was going into would have been brought into focus would have been in the pre-brief he had as he was going down the stairs.”
He said he had received “well over” 500 emails about the partygate scandal and “the overwhelming majority, at least nine in 10, if not 19 in 20, are absolutely furious and cannot understand how all of this has happened”.
But he added: “I choose to believe what the Prime Minister has said. But I know that that’s not good enough for many of my constituents.”
If Ms Gray’s report “says something different then we’re in a different place”, he acknowledged, indicating that Mr Johnson would have to resign if he was found to have misled Parliament.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The ministerial code is clear: the highest responsibility that any minister has is to be accurate in what they say to the House of Commons. That is the very foundation of our parliamentary democracy.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland: “I’ve got confidence in the Prime Minister”, but added: “Clearly the revelations that have been coming out are damaging and it’s unsettled parts of the Conservative parliamentary party, there’s no denying that.”
So far, seven Tory MPs have publicly called for Mr Johnson to go, far short of the 54 required to submit letters of no-confidence to the backbench 1922 Committee – but privately, many more believe the Prime Minister’s time is up.
Andrew Bridgen, one of the seven, told the PA news agency he expected 20 more letters to go in to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady from 2019-intake MPs on Wednesday.
“I would have thought that will encourage a considerable number of others who are wavering to put their letters in,” he said.
“I think will we get to the threshold of 54 this week. Graham Brady will announce we are having a confidence vote next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Bury South MP Christian Wakeford – who has a majority of just 402 – became the seventh Conservative MP to publicly call for Mr Johnson to go on Tuesday, according to Yahoo News.
But a number of newspapers reported that the plot to oust Mr Johnson was far wider.
MPs from the 2019 intake were said to have met on Tuesday to discuss Mr Johnson’s future in a gathering nicknamed the “pork pie plot” because of the alleged involvement of Melton Mowbray’s MP Alicia Kearns.
Mr Johnson, who was reported to have spent Tuesday evening in his Commons office meeting with potential rebels, apologised multiple times in a major broadcast interview for “misjudgments that were made”.
But he stuck to his defence that he had thought the May 20 2020 gathering had been a work event and he had not been warned about it in advance.
Mr Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings threw that into doubt on Monday as he said he would “swear under oath” Mr Johnson was told about the bash – he is set to give evidence to Ms Gray.
Asked if he had lied to Parliament, the Prime Minister told broadcasters: “Nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules, that the event in question was something that… was not a work event, and as I said in the House of Commons, when I went out into that garden I thought that I was attending a work event.”
Mr Johnson said he “can’t imagine why on Earth it would have gone ahead, or why it would’ve been allowed to go ahead” if he had been told it was anything but a “work event”.
He insisted he only saw the “bring your own booze” invite his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds sent to more than 100 staff “the other day… when it emerged”.