Boris Johnson apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No 10 during England’s first lockdown as he battled to save his premiership.
The Prime Minister acknowledged the public “rage” over the incident but insisted he thought it could have been technically within the rules.
Mr Johnson told MPs that he attended the May 20 2020 gathering for around 25 minutes to “thank groups of staff”.
“I believed implicitly that this was a work event,” he said.
But “with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside, I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognised that – even if it could have been said technically to fall within the guidance – there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way”.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that that included “people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden for meeting loved ones at all inside or outside”, adding: “To them and to this House, I offer my heartfelt apologies.”
He said senior official Sue Gray should be allowed to complete her inquiry into a series of alleged parties held during lockdown in No 10 and Whitehall “so that the full facts can be established”.
After Prime Minister's question time today, it sounds to me... very much as though politically the Prime Minister is a dead man walkingSir Roger Gale
However senior Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said it was already clear that Mr Johnson misled Parliament and that politically he was a “dead man walking”.
Sir Roger, a longstanding critic of the Prime Minister, said he did not expect Mr Johnson to resign and it would fall to the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee – the so-called “men in grey suits” – to decide his fate.
“We now know that the Prime Minister spent 25 minutes at what was quite clearly a party,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme.
“After Prime Minister’s question time today, it sounds to me, I am afraid, very much as though politically the Prime Minister is a dead man walking.”
Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, invited colleagues to “socially distanced drinks” on May 20 2020 to “make the most of the lovely weather” – urging them to “bring your own booze”.
The Prime Minister acknowledged public anger: “I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.
“Though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.”
Mr Johnson has faced growing Tory anger over the situation and Cabinet minister Simon Hart acknowledged it is damaging the party and the running of government.
“There’s a lot of frustration and bafflement about all of this, and I completely understand,” the Welsh Secretary said.
“I’ve not met anybody who is not deeply, deeply conscious of the effect that this has on people’s attitudes to not just the political party … but the Government and the smooth running of the nation.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to resign.
“After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road,” Sir Keir said.
The party's over, Prime Minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?Sir Keir Starmer
“His defence … that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public.”
He added: “The party’s over, Prime Minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?”
The embattled Prime Minister also faced calls to quit from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, who said if he “has no sense of shame, then the Tory backbenchers must act to remove him”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “”Will the Prime Minister, for the good of the country, accept that the party is over and decide to resign?”
Labour’s Chris Bryant, chairman of the Commons Standards Committee, questioned the Prime Minister’s excuse that he “didn’t spot that he was at a social event”, adding: “How stupid does the Prime Minister think that British people are?”
The Commons chamber was packed in anticipation of Mr Johnson’s response to the leaked email about the May 20 2020 event – although Chancellor Rishi Sunak, viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader, was notably absent on a visit to Devon.
Mr Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, now a prominent critic of the Prime Minister, said the claim that the event was “technically within the rules” is “bullshit”.
But he said Mr Johnson’s only alternative would be to admit that he broke the rules and resign.
In a sign of the public clamour for answers from the Prime Minister, ITV’s This Morning cut live to the House of Commons to hear his apology.