British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday suffered an embarrassing defection from his Conservative party over revelations of lockdown-breaching events in Downing Street, but vowed to fight on.
Seven Conservatives said they had filed letters demanding a Tory vote of no confidence in the embattled Johnson, and more than 20 others were reported to have coalesced in an organised revolt.
With the opposition Labour party surging in the polls, and inflation reaching a near 30-year high in the latest data, Johnson is struggling to regain the initiative, starting with an announcement that he is lifting most Covid restrictions in England.
One of the seven Tories, Christian Wakeford, took the dramatic step of joining the opposition party, minutes before Johnson faced Labour leader Keir Starmer at their weekly joust in the House of Commons.
Wakeford said in a message to Johnson that “you and the Conservative party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves”.
Wakeford represents the seat of Bury South near Manchester in northwest England, one of many that the Tories under Johnson captured from Labour in the 2019 general election.
Johnson shrugged off the blow, as a laughing Starmer pointed to Wakeford sitting in the Labour ranks at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“The Conservative party won Bury South for the first time in generations under this prime minister… and we will win again in Bury South at the next election under this prime minister,” Johnson said.
But Starmer said Johnson was “defending the indefensible” over the parties, including two held as Britain was in mourning for Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s consort for seven decades.
Criticism intensified after Johnson gave a strained television interview on Tuesday, in which he claimed not to be aware that at least one “bring your own booze” event in Downing Street would breach the Covid lockdown rules that he set.
‘Pork pie plot’
Afterwards, a group of more than 20 Tory MPs met to “discuss their concerns about Johnson’s leadership”, The Times newspaper reported.
It said a number of those were preparing to submit letters of no confidence after Prime Minister’s Questions, at which Johnson faced repeated calls from MPs to resign.
Several were named by media as those elected for the first time in Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, including younger Tories from the opposition Labour party’s former heartlands of northern England.
Their bid to unseat the prime minister was dubbed the “pork pie plot” because one of the MPs involved represents Melton Mowbray, a town in central England known for making the pastry-covered meat products.
“Pork pies” is also Cockney rhyming slang for “lies” – which a majority of voters believe Johnson is guilty of spreading over the “partygate” affair, according to several opinion polls.
At least 54 Tory MPs need to send letters calling for the prime minister’s resignation to trigger a party leadership challenge.
The threshold could be reached later Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph said, although senior cabinet members are said to be uneasy at the pace of events with no consensus on a figure to succeed Johnson.
“I choose to believe what he said,” armed forces minister James Heappey told Sky News, backing Johnson to stay in office pending an internal inquiry into the Downing Street parties by a senior civil servant.
But he conceded the Tory rebellion was not surprising, “because the British people are absolutely furious with what they’ve heard”.
In parliament, Johnson again urged all sides to await the inquiry’s findings.
The drip-feed of revelations is overshadowing Johnson’s attempts to reboot his premiership with a series of policy announcements.
He said Wednesday that he was scrapping requirements for people to work from home, to wear face masks in public settings, and to show vaccine passports on entry to larger events.
After the Omicron variant emerged, Britain’s daily caseload for Covid topped a record 200,000 infections in early January, but has now dropped to less than half that.