Boris Johnson has been accused of targeting the BBC in a desperate attempt to save his own premiership, as the Labour leader accused him of breaking the law by attending lockdown parties and then lying about it.
A number of Tory MPs are said to be poised to demand Johnson’s resignation amid anger from constituents over allegations of a party culture in Westminster while coronavirus restrictions were in place.
There have been reports that up to 35 of the 54 letters needed to trigger a vote of no confidence are already in, though the actual number is a closely guarded secret.
As Downing Street hoped to find ways to contain the crisis, the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, one of Johnson’s most loyal allies, confirmed on Sunday the BBC licence fee will be abolished in 2027 – and the broadcaster’s funding will be frozen for the next two years.
Though the move will force the corporation to close services and potentially make thousands of redundancies, it is likely to prove popular with Conservative party members and supporters, as well as the rightwing media who have yet to call for Johnson to quit.
“The prime minister thinks those reporting on his rule-breaking should pay consequences, whilst he gets off free,” said Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary.
Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary, described the announcement as “a last-ditch attempt [by Johnson] to save his failing premiership”.
The BBC funding cut, which could fundamentally change the corporation as it enters its centenary year, appears to be a central theme of Johnson’s fightback strategy, which is reportedly called Operation Red Meat.
Other measures said to be in the pipeline include a renewed drive to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats, measures to tackle the NHS operations backlog, extra investment in skills and lifting Covid restrictions on 26 January.
Although the BBC had been braced for bad news for some time – Johnson declared that he would consider abolishing the licence fee in the 2019 election campaign (on a day when a hospital scandal was dominating the headlines) – one government insider said the announcement had not been expected this weekend.
Some Tory MPs have been particularly critical of the way the BBC has covered Johnson’s latest leadership crisis, with the backbencher Michael Fabricant even claiming at the weekend that relentless coverage of anti-Johnson comments in news reports amounted to “a coup attempt against the prime minister”.
No 10 insiders insisted on Sunday that these reports were not a factor in the licence fee decision, which they said was the culmination of a process going on for more than a year, but the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, claimed there was a link “Slashing the funding of a beloved national treasure just because you don’t like the headlines on the 6 o’clock news is no way for a responsible government in a democracy to behave,” he said.
With Downing Street still reeling from revelations that its staff had partied the evening before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, it was forced to deny a claim that the prime minister failed to intervene to cancel a 20 May party last year when he had the chance.
No 10 said the claim made by Dominic Lawson in his Sunday Times column was “untrue”.
But one former Downing Street staffer told the Guardian they knew at least one colleague who had warned Johnson personally that the “bring your own booze” gathering, organised by Johnson’s aide, Martin Reynolds, should not go ahead.
Asked whether the PM knew about the party before it took place, the former insider replied: “Yes.”
Reynolds is one of several No 10 figures expected to leave after the senior civil servant Sue Gray publishes her report on the scandal. On Sunday Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party chair, said Johnson was committed to implementing a “change of culture” in Downing Street to stop these problems occurring again.
With many Tory MPs waiting until the Gray report comes out, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said there was no need to wait because it was already “obvious” that Johnson “broke the law … [and] then lied about what happened”.
Starmer was referring to Johnson’s statement to MPs last week in which he all but admitted that the party he attended at No 10 on 20 May 2020 was against the rules. Starmer said the PM’s admission that he was at the event showed he was not telling the truth when he told MPs before Christmas there had been no parties at No 10.
Six Conservative MPs had publicly called for Johnson’s resignation by late Sunday and one backbencher said that he knew there were “a lot of letters written but not necessarily sent yet” to the chair of the Conservative 1922 Committee demanding a confidence vote.
The MP said the mood in his “red wall” constituency had gone from “anger to ridicule” and that Johnson had become the butt of jokes among some who voted for him in December 2019. The backbencher said “the term ‘shitshow’ was used a lot last week [by Tory MPs]” and that they were waiting for the forthcoming report into the partygate scandal before deciding what to do next.
James Johnson, a Tory pollster, delivered a similar insight into popular revulsion with the PM on Sunday when he tweeted the findings from focus groups carried out with long-term Conservative voters, and people who backed the party for the first time in 2019, and he reported that calls for the PM to quit were “almost universal”.