As the prime minister talked about jobs with cabinet, he avoided questions surrounding his own. ITV News' UK Editor Paul Brand reports.
Boris Johnson is facing fresh accusations he lied to Parliament after photographs emerged of him raising a glass at a Downing Street leaving party during lockdown.
The Metropolitan Police is also facing questions as to why the prime minister was not fined in relation to the event when photographs showed him, drink in hand, alongside a table strewn with food and wine bottles.
The images – obtained by ITV News – were taken at a do for departing communications chief Lee Cain on November 13, 2020, just days after Mr Johnson had ordered a second national lockdown in England.
Asked last December in the Commons whether there had been a party in No 10 on that date, the prime minister said “no” and added he was sure the rules were followed at all times.
The PM has repeatedly denied Downing Street broke its own rules, including on the date in question
Labour said there was now “no doubt” that Mr Johnson had “lied” to MPs.
The long-awaited Sue Gray report into partygate may be released on Wednesday, Downing Street is understood to believe.
ITV News' UK Editor Paul Brand exclusively reported on the partygate photographs which show the prime minister drinking with others in Number 10 during lockdown on Monday's News At Ten
When the pictures were taken, there were at least eight other people in the room at a time when people were banned from social mixing, other than to meet one person outside, and at least one individual has received a fixed penalty notice in relation to an event on that date.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper has written to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) calling for it to examine the Met’s Operation Hillman inquiry into events in No 10 and Whitehall.
Supporters of the prime minister have been growing in confidence that he can survive calls for his resignation after receiving just one fine over a gathering in the Cabinet Office for his 56th birthday.
But there is still nervousness at Westminster that his position could come under renewed pressure if – as many expect – Ms Gray is highly critical of the culture in No 10 and Whitehall which resulted in repeated violations of the rules.
The Times has reported Mr Johnson suggested to Ms Gray that there was now no need for her to publish her report following the completion of the police investigation.
The paper quoted a Whitehall source as saying: “He asked her was there much point in doing it now that it’s all out there.”
There was no immediate comment from No 10.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Tuesday did not deny the reports.
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He told Sky News: “I wasn’t in the room so I don’t know that’s the case. Exactly what was discussed, I don’t know.
“Occasionally things get reported that are not entirely accurate, the civil service were there to make sure that all the correct processes were followed so I have no particular reason for concern about the two of them meeting.”
Mr Shapps insisted to ITV's Good Morning Britain that the PM "did not knowingly lie" to Parliament about the leaving do because a party is “usually a formally organised thing”.
He suggested Mr Johnson "dropped by" from his office “because his – probably – officials” told him to go and thank the departing member of staff.
The Cabinet minister believes the PM likely then “raises a glass, thanks them, leaves with those red boxes you can see there in the background, and does his work”.
"Probably from his perspective it was a brief encounter with a thank you," he added.
Declining to call it a party, he said "it’s certainly a gathering” - but said "it shouldn't have happened" and he believes the prime minister "will be disappointed" to see the images.
“I feel personally upset about it because of not being able to see my own dad, so I do not seek to defend it," said Mr Shapps.
In the short term, Mr Johnson’s fate will lie with Tory MPs who will have to decide whether Ms Gray’s findings are sufficiently serious to warrant a push to oust him as leader.
Veteran Conservative backbench MP Sir Roger Gale – a long-standing critic of Mr Johnson – said on Tuesday it was clear that he should go because he “misled us from the despatch box”.
He tweeted: "I believe that the PM has misled the HoC’s from the despatch box. That is a resignation issue. I have made my own position clear. It is now a matter for my Conservative parliamentary colleagues to decide whether or not to instigate a vote of no confidence."
Mr Johnson appeared in a bullish, defiant mood at Cabinet on Tuesday despite pressure building for him to offer his resignation.
He told his ministers there would never be a Cabinet meeting without him reminding them that their government had presided over a period which has seen unemployment go through the floor to "it's lowest level since 1974".
In response his ministers banged the table and he even cracked a joke about some of them not having been born when unemployment was at a lower level.
But there was no mention of the photograph-shaped elephant in the room in the prime minister's opening remarks, which were filmed for the UK broadcast pool.
Instead, the PM is seeking to quickly move the focus back to the cost-of-living crisis, but a number of his MPs are still reeling about the implication that their boss may have misled Parliament by saying there was no gathering on November 13, 2020.
On Tuesday morning, Conservative MP David Simmonds demanded an explanation from Mr Johnson.
He said it would be “very difficult” for Mr Johnson to provide a satisfactory answer, but added: “It seems to me he could construct some defence about how people were at work, but we need to see this in context. Many of my constituents lost relatives, they lost friends and family members, my father-in-law died of Covid.”
On Monday, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross demanded the prime minister explain why he believed his behaviour was “acceptable” when most people would think the pictures published by ITV News were “unjustifiable and wrong”.
His comments were echoed by the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Baroness Davidson, who said Mr Johnson’s position had become untenable.
“There is now photographic evidence that when the prime minister stood up in Parliament and was asked directly ‘was there a party in No 10 on this date’ and he replied ‘no’, he lied to Parliament,” she told Channel 4 News.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Office and the Met Police have had access to all information relevant to their investigations, including photographs.
“The Met have concluded their investigation and Sue Gray will publish her report in the coming days, at which point the prime minister will address Parliament in full.”