Chancellor Rishi Sunak has refused to give his unequivocal backing to Boris Johnson as the threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership grows over partygate allegations.
The potential successor as Tory leader abruptly ended an interview on Tuesday when pressed if he gives his full support to the Prime Minister.
He instead said he believes Mr Johnson is telling the truth and backs his request for “patience” during a Whitehall investigation by senior official Sue Gray.
So far six Conservative MPs have publicly called for Mr Johnson to go amid widespread public anger over claims of lockdown-breaching parties in No 10.
And senior Tory Jeremy Hunt said in an interview that his ambition to lead the party has not “completely vanished”.
The is SW1 code for: leadership contest is imminent, sign up early if you want a seat in Cabinet, am on phone to donors & getting office set up, there has to be one non-brexit nutter in last 2 https://t.co/bXlK7RbQZM— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) January 18, 2022
The affair deepened when former chief adviser to No 10 Dominic Cummings claimed Mr Johnson lied to Parliament over the parties.
Downing Street denies this, but appeared to accept that he would have to resign if he “knowingly” misled the House of Commons.
In his first interview since Mr Johnson’s apology to MPs over the scandal, the Chancellor said he accepts his explanation that he was not warned in advance about a No 10 drinks party during lockdown in May 2020.
“Of course I do. The Prime Minister set out his understanding of this matter last week in Parliament. I refer you to his words,” he told broadcasters.
“Sue Gray is conducting an inquiry into this matter and I fully support the Prime Minister’s requests for patience while that concludes.”
Asked if the Prime Minister should resign if he lied to Parliament, Mr Sunak said: “I am not going to get into hypotheticals, the ministerial code is clear on these matters.”
Pressed on whether Mr Johnson had his unequivocal support, Mr Sunak swiftly broke off the interview, walking off with a microphone still attached.
The Chancellor’s hours of silence after the Prime Minister’s apology to the Commons last Wednesday over the May 20 2020 “bring your own booze” garden gathering in No 10 had already been seen as conspicuous.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves accused “vanishing Chancellor” Mr Sunak of “running scared”.
“Instead of setting out a plan to tackle the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis – he dodges scrutiny and defends the bungling Prime Minister.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt, who has served as both foreign and health secretary, discussed not having given up hope to become Tory leader.
The House magazine said he denied actively considering a run, before adding: “I won’t say my ambition has completely vanished, but it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring.”
Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are seen as the frontrunners for any challenge to the Prime Minister.
But Mr Hunt was the strongest opponent against Mr Johnson when he won the leadership in 2019, coming second before being comfortably beaten.
Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser who levelled the allegation of lying to Parliament, said Mr Hunt’s remarks were a sign of a challenge.
“The is SW1 code for: leadership contest is imminent, sign up early if you want a seat in Cabinet, am on phone to donors & getting office set up, there has to be one non-brexit nutter in last 2,” Mr Cummings tweeted.
While only six Tories have publicly called for Mr Johnson to quit, many more are believed to have privately written letters calling for a vote of no confidence.
One route to a Tory leadership contest is for 54 letters to be submitted by MPs to chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservatives Sir Graham Brady, though he keeps the running total a closely guarded secret.