Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has moved to distance the government from speculation that it is moving to protect the prime minister by bringing in populist policies as a diversionary tactic.
Reports of “Operation Red Meat” and “Operation Save Big Dog” emerged over the weekend, suggesting that the government was moving to protect Boris Johnson after he has come under fire for allowing parties to take place in Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdown, one of which he admitted to attending.
The party at which Johnson was present took place on May 2020, 2020, which he said he attended for around 25 minutes to thank staff for their hard work in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. The PM also suggested that he believed the party to be a work event.
Some of the policy moves said to be part of the operation to ease the pressure on Johnson involves culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ move to freeze and later abolish the BBC licence fee, and announcements that the Royal Navy will be tasked with ensuring that migrants cannot cross the Channel in small boats from France to reach the UK illegally.
The Telegraph has also suggested that another move could involve the future repealing of emergency Covid laws, removing the requirement to self-isolate when testing positive and meaning people will no longer be liable to fines or other forms of punishment if they contravene the government's official guidance. No final decisions have yet been taken on the matter, the news outlet says.
But Zahawi said: “I'm a member of the cabinet, I don't recognise that language about 'red meat' or 'big dogs'. I don't recognise this stuff as if overnight we've just trumped up these ideas, that's not how government works.”
The education secretary also informed the BBC that the prime minister is “human” and “we all make mistakes”, denying that a departure was close and saying that he would remain in his position.
The Telegraph has separately reported that Sue Gray, the senior civil servant tasked with heading the inquiry into whether Covid rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown, has interviewed the prime minister directly.
In the wake of the reports emerging about the parties, Johnson has faced significant pressure to resign, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer labelling him “too weak to lead”.
“He has lost all authority and that matters, whatever party you are in,” Sir Keir said.
“We are still in the pandemic. It is important people behave in the way we need them to behave, and he has lost authority.”
Sir Keir himself has recently been criticised by Conservative MPs, after a photo taken in the spring of last year showed him drinking with colleagues in a constituency office. The Labour leader has denied that he broke Covid rules and that his conduct at the time was “no comparison” to what had been allowed to occur in Downing Street.
While Zahawi has called on Sir Keir to apologise, the Labour leader has said that the Conservatives had deliberately brought up the image to “take everyone into the gutter with them”.
Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons