Home Secretary Priti Patel has distanced herself from Chancellor Rishi Sunak as she threw her full support behind Boris Johnson over the Downing Street garden party row.
In an exclusive interview with Sky News political editor Beth Rigby, Ms Patel said that “supporting the prime minister” and his government’s work is how she “spends all my time day in, day out”.
Her fulsome support contrasts with Mr Sunak’s own comments in the wake of Mr Johnson’s admission that he attended a “bring your own booze” event at Number 10 during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Unlike Ms Patel, Mr Sunak – who is regarded as a likely successor to Mr Johnson – was absent from the House of Commons for the prime minister’s apology over the row on Wednesday.
It also took more than eight hours for the chancellor, who travelled to Devon for the day, to respond to Mr Johnson’s statement.
And, when he did finally comment via a Twitter post, Mr Sunak only said that the prime minister was “right to apologise” and that he supported Mr Johnson’s “request for patience” while an inquiry into multiple allegations of COVID rule-breaking in Number 10 continues.
Asked in the Sky News interview whether she was, as Mr Sunak appears to be, reserving judgement over the drinks party row until Sue Gray’s report is published, Ms Patel replied: “No! On the contrary.
“I have publicly supported the prime minister and actually you’re speaking to the home secretary who spends all my time day in, day out supporting the prime minister, his agenda of delivering on the people’s priorities and the work that we do.”
The Downing Street garden party row has led to open speculation among Conservative MPs about Mr Johnson’s future as prime minister.
But, asked whether she herself might contest the party’s leadership if Mr Johnson was forced to go, Ms Patel branded it an “irrelevant and inappropriate question right now”.
“I just don’t think it’s relevant to be discussing personalities right now at all,” she added. “We’re focused on doing the job.”
Ms Patel also dismissed a suggestion that her role as home secretary, in which she oversees law enforcement throughout England and Wales, made the “partygate” row uncomfortable for her.
“The prime minister yesterday in parliament – I was there alongside him as well – made a fulsome apology and he’s spoken about taking personal responsibility,” she added.
“There is a Sue Gray inquiry that is taking place. We can’t pre-empt that or prejudge that, we’ll have to wait and see what happens, what her findings are.
“But actually, I think the most important thing right now is the prime minister has given a personal apology himself.
“As a government there is so much work that is taking place.”
Reminded of her past comments that she personally would report a neighbour to the police if they were holding a party at a time of strict COVID rules, Ms Patel suggested that “guidance evolved” during the length of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Let’s not forget as well though, throughout the pandemic, you know, there were various situations with guidance changing,” she said.
The home secretary also rejected a suggestion that a lack of a police investigation into the 20 May event in the Downing Street garden could undermine public confidence in the police.
“No, absolutely not,” she said.
“On policing, you know, we asked, I asked the police to do very difficult things during the pandemic.
“And there’s a difference now of course in terms of, you know, there were law enforcement processes that took place at the time, obviously, restrictions etc, etc.”