Nadhim Zahawi has denied the government is rushing out a series of policy ideas in an attempt to save Boris Johnson, arguing that the prime minister is safe in his job despite a string of Downing Street parties during lockdowns.
“I think Boris Johnson has done the right thing to apologise,” the education secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, saying the prime minister should get credit for having correctly called “big, big decisions” in areas such as Brexit and vaccines.
Asked three times if Johnson was safe, Zahawi eventually agreed, saying: “Yes, he is, because he’s human and we make mistakes.”
He rejected the idea that ministers had been attempting to distract attention from Johnson’s political woes by briefing friendly newspapers on policies such as involving the Royal Navy in an attempt to stop small boat crossings in the Channel, and the likely end to the BBC licence fee.
“I’m glad you recognise that all this stuff about the government bringing stuff in the weekend is not true, because we work through policies based on our manifesto commitment,” Zahawi told Today.
In an earlier interview with Times Radio, Zahawi rejected the wider idea that No 10 had launched a fightback to save Johnson’s job under titles such as Operation Save Big Dog or Operation Red Meat.
“Honestly, I’m the secretary of state for education, I’m a member of the cabinet,” he said. “I don’t recognise that language about red meat or big dogs. All I can say to you is the prime minister’s focused on dealing with the big issues.”
Questioned repeatedly on Today about whether the string of revelations about apparent social events in Downing Street during Covid restrictions meant Johnson had to change his approach or be ejected, Zahawi refused to agree, arguing it was not possible to determine if the prime minister had done anything wrong before the publication of a report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray.
“It’s right that the prime minister recognises the level of anger and, of course, the feeling of unfairness, which is why he was right to apologise,” Zahawi said. “I would say that, actually, the value of fairness matters to people. Yes of course they’re feeling angry, feeling upset. They can’t turn the clock back. What we do about it is the fairness argument. And I think it’s important that you don’t condemn a man before you’ve had the investigation.”
Asked how Johnson could persuade people he was serious about the issue, Zahawi said: “It begins with an apology, it begins with recognising that we need to get the evidence, and the investigation is going to be important. Because how do you change a culture if you don’t have the evidence?”
In an echo of Downing Street’s defence of Johnson over one of the most damning allegations, that he spent 25 minutes in the Downing Street garden as staff held a “bring your own booze” party on 20 May 2020, Zahawi said the prime minister “implicitly” believed he had not broken any rules.
Asked why he had caveated his argument with “implicitly”, a word he had also used in earlier interviews, Zahawi said: “I’m repeating to you what I heard the prime minister say at the dipatch box in the chamber for his statement [last Wednesday]. He thought he was going outside for 25 minutes to motivate his workforce, and come back in and continue to work, and he apologised for it.”
He added: “If somebody thought that they were going outside to motivate their staff – that is what he thought, that he wasn’t actually breaking the rules.”