Boris Johnson pledges to ‘address underlying culture’ of lockdown parties in bid to save job

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The Prime Minister is ‘very contrite’, a Cabinet minister has said (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
The Prime Minister is ‘very contrite’, a Cabinet minister has said (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson is set to overhaul his Downing Street operation in a desperate attempt to "address the underlying culture" that led to lockdown boozing, a Cabinet minister has said.

Tory chair Oliver Dowden insisted on Sunday that the prime minister was "contrite" over allegations of rule-breaking and suggested he would be making changes to his top team.

But opposition parties doubled down on criticism the prime minister, with Labour leader Keir Starmer stating that Mr Johnson "broke the law" and then "lied about what had happened".

"I think he broke the law. I think he's as good as admitted that he broke the law," Sir Keir told the BBC.

"I know that the Government's holding position is 'let's all wait for the Sue Gray report'.

"But I think it's pretty obvious what's happened, this industrial-scale partying had been going on at Downing Street, not much of it is really denied, and I think that the public have made up their mind. I think the facts speak for themselves.

"I think the Prime Minister broke the law, I think he then lied about what had happened."

There have been over a dozen different allegations of festivities in government while lockdown rules have been in effect – but no charges have been brought by the police.

The Independent reported earlier this week that the PM was set to try and save his own skin by sacking officials close to him - dubbed "Operation Save Big Dog".

Details are now beginning to emerge of the planned cull of his inner circle, designed to restore public confidence.

Martin Reynolds, who sent the "bring your own booze" invite to No10 colleagues, and Mr Reynolds' deputy are expected to be forced out, according to the Sunday Times. The paper says No.10's chief of staff may also be set to go.

Tory chair Mr Dowden told the BBC's Sunday morning programme: "I can assure you the Prime Minister is both very contrite and deeply apologetic for what happened.

"But, more importantly, he is determined to make sure that this can't be allowed to happen and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street.

"There were failings: we should have done better, much, much better." It has been suggested that No.10 staff may be banned from drinking on the job, amid revelations that they regularly held “wine-time Fridays” while lockdown regulations were in effect.

But there is also pressure from within the party to change tack on policy and perhaps chart a more right-wing course.

Lord Frost, who quit the Cabinet last month over the political direction of the government, said changing the No.10 team was "necessary but not sufficient".

"To get through this we need changes in machinery so good decisions are taken and actually delivered [and] changes in policy," he said – indicating he would support a switch to less ambitious action on climate change and more tax cuts.

But Will Tanner, a former senior official in the No.10 policy unit, poured cold water on Mr Johnson's mooted approach. He said it was "hard to see how losing the principal private secretary, deputy principal private secretary, chief of staff and director of communications simultaneously will improve the Downing Street operation - no matter who replaces them".

It comes amid reports that Mr Johnson had been warned by "at least two people" that the May 2020 "bring your own booze" event amounted to "a party" and should be immediately cancelled.

But a No 10 spokesperson on Sunday rejected the claims. "It is untrue that the Prime Minister was warned about the event in advance," they said.

"As he said earlier this week he believed implicitly that this was a work event. He has apologised to the House and is committed to making a further statement once the investigation concludes."

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