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 PM.
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.
Calls for Johnson’s head
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 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.
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.”
Sunak vs Truss
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.
The latest Opinium poll with Channel 4 News shows Sunak is favoured among the Conservative Party memebership, with 44 per cent backing him compared to 33 per cent for Liz Truss.
By comparison, 14 per cent picked Sajid Javid, 13 per cent picked Dominic Raab, 12 per cent picked Michael Gove, 9 per cent picked Priti Patel, 9 per cent picked Jeremy Hunt, and 4 per cent picked Nadhim Zahawi.
However, when it comes to a head-to-head race between the two favourites, Sunak holds a 28-point lead after removing those who are undecided or say they wouldn’t vote.
Overall, 64 per cent of the membership say they would vote for him, compared to 36 per cent who would vote for Truss.
Meanwhile, Sunak would also beat Jeremy Hunt by 58 points (79 per cent vs. 21 per cent), while Truss would beat Hunt by 42 points (71 per cent vs. 29 per cent).