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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on the brink of facing a leadership challenge, according to reports, after an angry backlash over claims parties were held at his residence during Covid-19 lockdowns.
After Johnson denied an accusation by his former adviser that he had lied to parliament about one party, the Daily Telegraph and ITV News, citing sources, said the required number of letters from his own lawmakers calling for a no-confidence vote in his leadership could be reached on Wednesday.
As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last general election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, the Telegraph reported.
Johnson's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Just two years ago, Johnson (57) was the darling of his party after he secured the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, allowing him to deliver on promises to finally steer Britain out of the European Union.
But the relationship is rapidly souring under the impact of a steady stream of revelations about Downing Street's apparent flouting of strict lockdown rules.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative lawmakers in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party's 1922 Committee.
The letters are confidential, so the chairman is the only person who knows how many lawmakers have actually written them.
British media have reported that at least 11 gatherings took place at Johnson's 10 Downing Street residence or in other government departments between May 2020 and April 2021, when Covid-19 rules limited how many people could meet socially.
The scandals have seen approval ratings plummet for Johnson and the Conservative Party.
PM: Nobody told me drinks party against rules
Johnson has denied an accusation by his former adviser that he had lied to parliament about a lockdown party, saying nobody had warned him the "bring your own booze" gathering might contravene Covid rules.
He faces the gravest crisis of his tenure after revelations about gatherings during lockdowns, some when British people could not even bid farewell in person to dying relatives and the Queen was mourning her husband, Prince Philip.
Propelled into the top job to "get Brexit done", Johnson won his party's biggest majority in more than 30 years but now faces calls to resign from opponents and even some of his own lawmakers.
Asked if he had lied to the public and parliament, Johnson told reporters: "No. Nobody told me that what we were doing was, as you say, against the rules ... I thought that I was attending a work event."
Johnson sidestepped questions about whether he would resign if proven he misled parliament, saying only that he wanted to wait for the outcome of an internal inquiry.
"He’s the prime minister, he set the rules, he didn’t need anyone to tell him that the party he attended broke them," said Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party.
"If he had any respect for the British public, he would do the decent thing and resign."
Johnson used a short interview during a visit to a hospital to apologise for mistakes made in Downing Street, including for parties held by staff on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip.
"I deeply and bitterly regret that happened and I can only renew my apologies both to Her Majesty and to the country," he said.
'The PM lied'
Johnson had already last week apologised to parliament for attending the May 20, 2020 gathering in the Downing Street garden. He said he was there for 25 minutes to thank staff.
But Dominic Cummings, an architect of Britain's departure from the European Union and a former senior adviser who left government under acrimonious terms in November 2020, said that Johnson had agreed the drinks party should go ahead.
Cummings said that he and at least one other adviser told Principal Private Secretary (PPS) Martin Reynolds, the official who invited people to the party, that it should not go ahead.
The warning was sent via email, and Reynolds checked with Johnson if the event should go ahead, according to Cummings.
"I told the PPS the invite broke the rules ... The idea that the PPS would be challenged by two of the most senior people in the building, say he’d check with the PM then not - is not credible," Cummings said in his blog.
"The PM agreed it should (go ahead)," Cummings added. "The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to parliament about parties."
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating about a dozen allegations of rule-breaking by Johnson, his team and officials at 10 Downing Street. Cummings told Sky News he will be questioned by her investigation.
Senior ministers have said people needed to wait for the conclusion of her inquiry. However, the scandals have seen his and the Conservative Party's ratings plummet.