The Tory grandee David Davis told Boris Johnson: “In the name of God, go,” during an often chaotic prime minister’s questions overshadowed by intense doubt about Johnson’s future.
After a fierce set of exchanges between Johnson and Keir Starmer, Davis rose to tell Johnson that he had spent weeks defending him from “angry constituents”, but that repeated reports about lockdown-breaching parties were too much.
The former Brexit secretary said: “I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that. So I will remind him of a quotation which may be familiar to his ear, Leopold Amery to Neville Chamberlain: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.’”
Asked by the Guardian afterwards what had motivated him to make an intervention, Davis said the interview given by the prime minister to Sky News on Tuesday was “not what I expect from a leader”.
“Up until now I had been supporting him … but it’s not leadership,” he said. “Yesterday’s interview was an attempt to escape responsibility, not to shoulder it. And that is a test of leadership.”
It is understood junior colleagues had been pressing Davis to make a statement publicly calling for the prime minister to go, saying the situation needed a “big figure” to intervene.
Earlier in prime minister’s questions, Starmer castigated Johnson for what he called “absurd and frankly unbelievable” explanations over Downing Street parties.
Despite speculation that the threshold of formal letters from Tory MPs seeking a confidence vote could be reached later on Wednesday, and the defection of the Bury South MP, Christian Wakeford, from the Tories to Labour just before PMQs, Johnson put up a bullish defence of his record.
One cabinet minister claimed Wakeford’s defection was “unifying” and would “draw a line under the whole thing”. In response to Davis’s intervention, they shrugged. But another cabinet minister said they recognised that the prime minister’s position was “precarious”.
Starmer took every opportunity to condemn and even mock the prime minister, with the Labour leader at one point noting the noisy government benches, asking if “the chief whip told them to bring their own boos”, a reference to the invitation sent to No 10 staff in May 2020.
“Every week the prime minister offers absurd and frankly unbelievable defences to the Downing Street parties, and each week it unravels,” Starmer told the Commons. “First he said there were no parties, then the video landed, blowing that defence out of the water. Next he said he was sickened and furious when he found out about the parties – until it turned out that he was at the Downing Street garden party.
“Then last week he said he didn’t realise he was at a party and, surprise surprise, no one believed him. So this week he’s got a new defence – nobody warned me that it was against the rules. Since the prime minister wrote the rules, why on earth does he think this new defence is going to work for him?”
In response to this and further questions, Johnson told Starmer he would have to wait for the outcome of a report on the parties by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, saying at one point: “I have said what I have said about the events in No 10.”
But Starmer kept pushing over Johnson’s explanation for why he attended an event in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020.
“It requires the prime minister to expect us to believe that whilst every other person who was invited on 20 May was told it was a social occasion, he alone was told it was a work meeting,” the Labour leader said. “It also requires the prime minister to ask us to accept that as he waded through the empty bottles and platters of sandwiches, he didn’t realise it was a party. Does the prime minister realise how ridiculous that sounds?”
Starmer ended by saying Johnson was “trying to save just one job – his own”.
Johnson replied by talking up his record over Covid and vaccinations, saying this was “thanks to the work of staff up and down Whitehall, across government, throughout the NHS.” He added: “And I am intensely proud of what this government has done.”