Defense Minister James Heappey has said he “sincerely hopes” that Boris Johnson did not mislead parliament about the drinks party in the No 10 garden during the first Covid lockdown in May 2020.
The prime minister is battling to save his premiership, amid reports the 54 letters which would launch a no confidence vote could be received on Wednesday.
In a message to MPs considering sending a letter to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, Mr Heappey told Sky News: “This does not feel like the time to be changing prime minister, if you ask me.”
However, the minister refused to say whether Mr Johnson should resign if he is found to have broken the law. “We are all keen to understand exactly what happened and whether or not it was breaking law, it is perfectly reasonable to wait for Sue Gray’s report.”
Asked on Times Radio if a report by investigating civil servant Sue Gray could find the PM misled parliament, Mr Heappey said: “It may … Ministers know that when they stand up at the dispatch box they need to be accurate with their language. I sincerely hope the prime minister was. ”
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today program whether Mr Johnson was the right person to lead party into next general election, Mr Heappey said: “As things stand, right now, yes.”
The Armed Forces minister said he currently “accepted” the PM’s explanation of events, but also signaled he thinks that if Ms Gray’s report shows Mr Johnson misled parliament he should resign.
“If Sue Gray comes out and says something different then we’re in a different place and I’m happy to come back and reflect on my feelings then,” he said.
A seventh Tory MP confirmed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson, with up to 20 reportedly set to follow suit in a growing mutiny emboldened by the party’s 2019 “red wall” intake.
A group of angry red wall Tory MPs is understood to discuss Mr Johnson’s downfall on Wednesday in a move dubbed the “Pork Pie Plot” because it allegedly involves Alicia Kearns, the MP for Rutland and Melton – home of the Melton Mowbray delicacy.
Asked about the rebellion on Sky News, Mr Heappey said: “Some colleagues appear to have met to discuss things. I do not think that’s surprising – I suspect there are lots of colleagues who are reflecting on what they have heard in their constituencies and are feeling under a lot of pressure. ”
The Armed Forces minister said he accepted Tory MPs were “competing loyalties” to the prime minister and their constituents – but urged colleagues to keep “cool heads” and wait for the outcome of Ms Gray’s report.
He told the BBC Breakfast: “I have chosen to believe the prime minister, I hope colleagues do likewise. But I understand there are very many people out there who do not want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and that’s why it’s right there is an investigation. ”
The minister also suggested Mr Johnson had been let down by his staff, arguing that “the prime minister really does not own his own diary,” adding: “The reality is that those who work around the prime minister need to have his back. ”
Mr Johnson insisted on Tuesday that he was not told it was against the rules for him to attend a gathering in the garden of Downing Street on 20 May 2020. Mr Heappey claimed the PM’s diary is so “congested” he can not be expected to know what he was attending.
“I can see how the prime minister would not have known what it was he was going down the stairs to join… He would have been grabbed from his office, taken downstairs and briefed on what he was going to, as he went,” he told Today.
Asked about the so-called drinking culture in Whitehall, the defense minister said he saw government staff “very occasionally have a glass of wine together at the end of work”.
But Mr Heappey added: “I think that there needs to be some reflection on the amount of alcohol that appears to be consumed and how regularly, not just the No 10 but in a number of departments of state.”
Red wall Tory Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, became the seventh Conservative MP to publicly call for Mr Johnson to go on Tuesday.
Some MPs have suggested the expected flurry of no-confidence letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, could take the total to the 54 needed trigger a vote of no confidence as soon as Wednesday. One told the Daily Telegraph: “His time has gone.”
One Tory backbencher who is “close” to sending in a no-confidence letter told The Independent that opposition to Mr Johnson was strongest among “one nation” Tories who had been opposed to Brexit, as well as some in the Covid Research Group (CRG) who had been vehemently against restrictions.
“Many of the 2019 intake feel they owe their seats to him [Mr Johnson]. So if some of them are turning against him it’s a bad sign for him. ”
Andrew Bridgen – one of the MPs to have already submitted a letter – also predicted “we will get to threshold of 54 this week” with Sir Graham announcing whether a vote will take place “next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday”.
He added: “I heard first-hand last night that another 20 from the 2019 intake will be going in today. I would have thought that would encourage a considerable number of others who are wavering to put their letters in.
“The Sue Gray report, I think, will be out Tuesday or Wednesday next week. and of course Dominic Cummings and those who have got information damaging to the prime minister will probably dump everything into the press this weekend to influence the vote next week. ”