Can ‘Operation Red Meat’ REALLY save Boris’s bacon? Tories warn policy blitz on migrants and BBC might not be enough to save PM as he is grilled by Sue Gray over Partygate – amid claims he attended ANOTHER leaving bash
The PM is believed to have been grilled by top civil servant Sue Gray, who could deliver her report on the bewildering array of allegations about lockdown breaches in Whitehall within days.
In the latest claim, Mr Johnson was accused of attending a leaving do for defence adviser Captain Steve Higham before Christmas 2020, where he gave a speech.
The government has been gearing up for a huge effort to rescue Mr Johnson, with crowd-pleasing announcements on bringing in the military to tackle the Channel migrant crisis and reforming the BBC.
There is also speculation that he is ready to jettison some of his most senior aides and ban alcohol in Downing Street in order to shore up his premiership.
In a round of interviews this morning, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted the PM ‘feels the pain’ of the public at the apparent flouting of the restrictions the country was living under.
He argued that Mr Johnson was ‘human’ and had apologised for his ‘mistake’ in attending a social event on May 2020. But Mr Zahawi had to be asked three times on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme before saying the premier was ‘safe’ in his job.
No10 is braced for another brutal week with fears Tory MPs will return to Westminster today having spent the weekend been barracked by their constituents over the row.
With half-a-dozen Tory MPs already openly calling for Mr Johnson to quit, backbencher Andrew Bowie has warned that Mr Johnson’s half-apology to the Commons last week ‘didn’t cut it’.
‘There is a real sense of anger and disappointment within the party and I think that many MPs therefore are struggling with the decisions that they may have to take over the next few weeks,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
Another Conservative, Chris Loder, said he had received 400 emails over recent days with the ‘vast, vast majority’ critical of the PM – and suggested this week could be decisive.
‘It’s very difficult… I think people will be comparing notes about that and I think we will see over the next week or so what those determinations are,’ he said.
Boris Johnson (pictured running this morning) is believed to have been grilled by top civil servant Sue Gray, who could deliver her report on the bewildering array of allegations about lockdown breaches in Whitehall within days
Boris Johnson has been quizzed by senior civil servant Sue Gray (right) over the Partygate allegations that have rocked the Tory party in recent weeks
Ms Gray’s report on the bewildering array of allegations about lockdown breaches in Downing Street (pictured) and Whitehall within days
Mr Johnson is believed to be preparing a cull of his inner circle. Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary (pictured above) who sent an email inviting staff to ‘bring your own booze’ in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown, and chief-of-staff Dan Rosenfield, are among those seen at risk.
hitehall appears to already be bracing for Ms Gray’s findings, with the Prime Minister launching a pre-emptive ‘policy blitz’ in an attempt to push back against the biggest crisis he has endured since taking office in 2019. Pictured: One of the ‘illicit parties’ held in Downing Street gardens on May 17, 2020
Labour now has a 10 point lead over the Tories – its biggest advantage over the Conservatives since 2013
Operation Red Meat: Boris’s attempt to take back control
‘Operation Red Meat’ is expected to include:
- A No 10 workplace ‘booze ban’ to end the drinking culture that led to party row. Boris Johnson is drafting rules for Downing Street staff that will limit alcohol to being served only at official functions.
- Clearout of No 10 staff caught up in party row. Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary who emailed the ‘bring your own booze’ invite for the Downing Street garden party in the first lockdown, and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, are among those seen at risk.
- Two-year BBC licence fee freeze to help ease household bills. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is expected to confirm that the cost of an annual licence will remain at £159 until 2024.
- Drive to bring down NHS waiting lists. The number of people on a hospital waiting list in England hit six million for the first time, figures showed last week. In December, nearly 27 per cent of patients at A&E waited more than four hours to be seen – a record high.
- Extra money for jobs and skills training to help those out of work and further reduce the number of jobseekers. The unemployment rate fell to 4.2 per cent in the three months to the end of October, down from 4.3 per cent in the three months to the end of September.
- Get rid of Plan B Covid restrictions, such as the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport and vaccine passports for large events on January 26.
- Publication of the Levelling Up white paper. The document, which is being prepared by Michael Gove, will set out the Government’s strategy to improve lives in neglected towns. It is expected to come in the first week of February.
- As announced last night, the military will be drafted in to tackle illegal immigration in the Channel. Defence chiefs will take charge of efforts to stop the dangerous crossings that have reached record levels this year. Royal Navy boats could be sent to reinforce Border Force’s fleet.
Mr Zahawi was sent out on the airwaves to defend the PM, saying he is ‘focused on dealing with the big issues’.
He told Times Radio: ‘If you think again about the big calls, whether it’s Brexit, the vaccine programme which the Prime Minister very much focused on and I led the deployment, and of course the call on Omicron pre-Christmas… on the big decisions, he’s made the right call.
‘Of course, we’re all human, we make mistakes. And when he made a mistake, he came to Parliament and apologised for it.’
But Mr Zahawi said he personally would have acted differently and told staff to ‘get back to your desk’ if he had discovered a party.
And the minister also needed to be asked three times before stating explicitly that the Prime Minister will stay on.
‘Yes, he is, because he’s human and we make mistakes,’ Mr Zahawi said.
‘And, actually, he came to the despatch box and apologised and said he will absolutely submit himself to Parliament, because that’s our parliamentary democracy.’
An end to Downing Street‘s drinking culture has been mooted as a large part of a wider policy shake-up dubbed Operation Red Meat in the wake of the party scandal.
The long-called for end of the BBC licence and revamped efforts to curb migrant crossings in the Channel were also among the other ‘populist moves’ touted by Downing Street as part of renewed efforts to woo voters and rebel Tory MPs.
Tense negotiations between the Government and the BBC over the cost of the annual fee until the end of 2027 have concluded, with Ms Dorries deciding to hold the licence at £159 for the next two years.
And for the first time in history, the UK Border Force will be placed under a military chain of command in the fight against illegal people traffickers following a record-breaking year for crossings in the English Channel.
An end to restrictive Plan B Covid measures and a cull of the Prime Minister’s innermost circle, including his beleaguered private secretary Martin Reynolds, are also expected.
Mr Johnson is expected to return to public duties on Wednesday, where he will face Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and any disillusioned backbenchers at PMQs.
Polling from YouGov indicated the Prime Minister’s popularity rating was at its lowest since the start of his premiership.
Johnson’s loyalists spent the weekend trying to convince wavering Tory support in what is due to be one of the biggest weeks of the Prime Minister’s tenure.
But former minister Tim Loughton yesterday became the sixth Conservative backbencher to call for Mr Johnson to quit.
The Prime Minister aims to hit back at swelling Tory disquiet with a barrage of policy announcements in the next fortnight in a bid to seize the initiative, dubbed ‘Operation Red Meat’.
That began last night with the news that the Armed Forces will take control of tackling migrant boats in the Channel.
The Ministry of Defence will take control of the operation within weeks, after the Prime Minister signed off a dramatic change in tactics.
Royal Navy vessels and RAF support are expected to be deployed on patrol in UK territorial waters as part of a policy blitz dubbed Operation Red Meat that Mr Johnson hopes will turn the tide of Tory disquiet at his premiership.
Officials hope the involvement of the Armed Forces will have a significant ‘deterrent effect’.
Government sources pledged the move would result in ‘demonstrable change’ in the Channel crisis, which last year saw a record 28,300 migrants reach the UK from northern France.
Tory MPs welcomed the move last night. It was the first major announcement as Mr Johnson seeks to get his premiership back on track in the wake of the ‘Partygate’ scandals that have rocked his government.
‘The command of Border Force, which oversees incidents in the Channel, will move over to the Ministry of Defence,’ a Whitehall source said.
‘This will take place by the end of the month or early February. Within a couple of weeks there will be a demonstrable change in how the Channel operation takes place. It makes a lot of sense.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel first requested military involvement in summer 2020, when the numbers crossing from France stood at just a few thousand a year.
Last night a Home Office source said: ‘We’ve been pushing for it for so long, but there has been massive reluctance to act in other parts of government.
‘Priti has been asking for military defence of UK territorial waters since August 2020 and after months and months of wrangling in Whitehall the PM has agreed with her that we need a change in operational posture.’
Alongside these changes, Mr Johnson is believed to be preparing a cull of his inner circle after the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into so-called ‘Partygate’, which could come this week.
Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary who sent an email inviting staff to ‘bring your own booze’ in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown, and chief-of-staff Dan Rosenfield, are among those seen at risk.
The future of the national broadcaster is also firmly in the sights of the Tory government after a series of complaints about the BBC’s impartiality and barbed comments from Today presenter Nick Robinson over the Partygate row.
As Nadine Dorries has told friends: ‘I’m from the roughest streets in Liverpool – they can come after me if they want, but I am resolute. It’s over for the BBC as long as I am in this job.’
The Culture Secretary’s decision to freeze the BBC’s £159 annual licence fee for two years comes after a series of fraught meetings with Director-General Tim Davie and other executives.
Ms Dorries has also indicated that she wants to put in place a new funding model for the national broadcaster when the current licence fee deal expires in five years’ time.
The Cabinet minister has hit the Corporation with a two-year licence fee freeze and her allies have warned ‘the days of state-run television are over’, as tensions between the Government and the BBC continue to rise.
Ms Dorries tweeted this morning: ‘This licence fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors, are over.
‘Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.’
Ms Dorries was speaking as it emerged Boris Johnson was planning a policy blitz dubbed Operation Red Meat, targeting disaffected Tory voters – and MPs – with a series of populist moves including a crackdown on cross-Channel migrants aimed at deflecting attention away from Partygate.
Tense negotiations between the Government and the BBC over the cost of the annual fee until the end of 2027 have concluded, with Cutlure Secretary Nadine Dorries (above) deciding to hold the licence at £159 for the next two years
Ms Dorries tweeted this morning that ‘this licence fee announcement will be the last’
The licence fee currently earns the corporation £3.2 billion a year. Officials calculate that – due to inflation currently running at 5.1 per cent – the Corporation will have to find savings of more than £2 billion over the next six years
The news of the Prime Minister closing ranks comes as it emerges that one Tory MP’s constituency office was hit by graffitists who wrote ‘lies, lies, lies’ on the property.
Others MPs have revealed their inboxes have been flooded with furious constituents reacting to the Partygate scandal. Publicly, at least six Tory MPs have called for Mr Johnson’s resignation.
Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Poole who was first elected in 1997, told the Telegraph: ‘Like my colleague, Tim Loughton, I am considering whether or not I ought to put in a letter [of no confidence].
‘I’ve had emails from what I would call Christian, decent, honest, honourable types of Tory voters, who say they feel embarrassed about voting Conservative with Boris Johnson.’
During his round of broadcast interviews, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said yesterday the Prime Minister will seek to ‘address the underlying culture in Downing Street’ that led to the scandal.
But as the Prime Minister’s closest allies rally around him Rishi Sunak, a future Tory leadership contestant, is among a dozen Cabinet ministers whose silence remains deafening since Mr Johnson’s apology last week.
Mr Downden admitted there were ‘failings’ in No 10, but denied it was a resigning matter for Mr Johnson.
Heold the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: ‘The Prime Minister is… determined to make sure that this can’t be allowed to happen and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street.’
But Mr Loughton, a former children’s minister, said ‘terminal damage’ had been done to Mr Johnson.
‘In this case all roads lead back to Downing Street and the person whose name is on the front door,’ the East Worthing and Shoreham MP said yesterday.
For a leadership contest to be triggered, 54 letters of no confidence in Mr Johnson have to be submitted by Tory MPs to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 backbench committee.
Royal Navy vessels and RAF support are expected to be deployed on patrol in UK territorial waters in a bid to tackle the migrant crisis in the Channel
A group of migrants pictured using an inflatable dinghy to make the journey across the Channel to reach the UK in November
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, has called for Mr Johnson to resign over the party row
Labour is piling the pressure on the Tories over the revelations. It has published a new campaign poster claiming the ‘Tories Aren’t Working’
Tory whips were accused of using ‘dirty tricks’ last night to stop letters being sent, with a handful said to be ‘monitoring’ the corridors outside of the 1922 Committee’s office in Whitehall.
MPs first elected in 2019 also said they have been warned No 10 would find out if they had sent any dissenting correspondence.
This is despite the fact letters are received in confidence by Sir Graham, who does not publicly state how many he has received.
An MP in the 2019 intake said: ‘It tells you how desperate things have got they are resorting to these underhand tactics. If anything, these sorts of dirty tricks make colleagues more determined to stand up to No 10.’
Downing Street last night dismissed suggestions Mr Johnson had not been totally upfront in his apology last Wednesday, in which he said he attended the May 20 garden party for 25 minutes but understood it to be a ‘work event’.
A report in the Sunday Times claimed he was warned by ‘at least two people’ that the event being organised in Mr Reynolds’ email amounted to ‘a party’ and should be cancelled – but he dismissed the concerns as an overreaction, praising his private secretary as ‘my loyal labrador’.
A No 10 spokesman last night said: ‘It is untrue that the Prime Minister was warned about the event in advance.’
The Lib Dems said they have tabled a motion stating Parliament has no confidence in the PM.
The party wants Tory MPs to back it in a bid to have it debated in the Commons, with leader Sir Ed Davey pushing for a vote on Wednesday.
Carrie on partying! PM’s wife is accused of breaking social distancing rules while celebrating a friend’s engagement
Carrie Johnson has been accused of breaching social distancing rules when she celebrated a friend’s engagement just days after the public were warned to keep their distance from people they don’t live with.
Mrs Johnson, 33, the wife of Prime Minister Boris, had been at an engagement celebration for her friend Anna Pinder on September 17, 2020 at The Conduit, a private members’ club in Covent Garden, London.
Mrs Johnson, whose arm is wrapped around Ms Pinder in a picture that circulated online, appears to laugh with her friend as they pose for the snap on a sofa on the club’s outdoor terrace.
At the time, Brits had been warned that the country was on the cusp of a second wave of Covid infections.
Two metre social distancing guidance and the rule of six, meaning groups of more than half a dozen were restricted from meeting for anything other than work, education or weddings and funerals, were also still in place in September 2020.
Days before the happy friends were pictured smiling together on their night out, Mr Johnson hosted a press conference in which he reminded the British public they ‘should keep your distance from anyone you don’t live with’.
A spokeswoman for Mrs Johnson told the Telegraph she ‘regrets the momentary lapse’ of judgement that saw her openly hug her friend despite the guidance in place at the time.