Boris Johnson: Kwasi Kwarteng defends PM's use of Jimmy Savile 'slur' against Sir Keir Starmer as 'perfectly reasonable'

It was "perfectly reasonable" for Boris Johnson to attack Sir Keir Starmer over the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile when he was director of public prosecutions, a minister has told Sky News.

Asked on Trevor Phillips on Sunday about the prime minister's use of the discredited claim that the Labour leader was responsible for the failure to bring Savile to justice, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended Mr Johnson.

Labour calls for Johnson to go as Theresa May's former aide calls PM's Savile comment 'stupid' - politics live

Sir Keir accused the PM of using the "conspiracy theories of violent fascists" to score political points, having described it as a "ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls" during an interview with Sky News earlier this week.

Mr Johnson stepped back from his use of the discredited claim after days of criticism, saying Sir Keir "had nothing to do personally with those decisions" and "I was making a point about his responsibility for the organisation as a whole".

Conservative peer Lord Barwell, who was chief of staff under Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May, told Sky News making the allegation was a "stupid thing" for the PM to have done.

Asked if he would have used the words that the prime minister did in the Commons on Monday, Mr Kwarteng said: "In that context I think it was perfectly reasonable to mention the fact that Sir Keir had apologised.

"Sir Keir himself apologised on behalf of the organisation he led about the fact that they failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile.

"So the fact that he apologised suggests that he does, at some level, bear some responsibility."

Pressed further on whether he would have used those words, Mr Kwarteng said: "No, what I'm trying to say is that it's about leadership, it's about accountability.

"Sir Keir apologised and so that's something that was absolutely in scope. I'm not saying that he had personal blame, he didn't.

"We've been very clear about that and the prime minister clarified that position as well.

"But I think in the cut and thrust of debate, when people are talking about leadership and accountability, bringing up something that Sir Keir himself apologised for seems reasonable."

The business secretary's comments come after both Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid distanced themselves from the PM's use of the claim.

Mr Johnson's policy chief, Munira Mirza, resigned over it, one of five aides to depart Number 10 within the space of 24 hours as the fallout from Downing Street gatherings during COVID restrictions in 2020 and 2021, 12 of which are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, continues.

The PM has since appointed a new director of communications and chief of staff, although questions have been raised about how Stephen Barclay will be able to carry out the latter role given he is already a cabinet minister and an MP.

Fact check

In 2020, fact-checking charity Full Fact looked into the claim Sir Keir had stopped Savile being charged in 2009, when Sir Keir was head of the CPS.

It said the decision not to prosecute Savile was made on the grounds of "insufficient evidence", with the allegations against the DJ dealt with by local police and a reviewing lawyer for the CPS.

"A later investigation criticised the actions of both the CPS and the police in their handling of the situation," Full Fact found.

"It did not suggest that Mr Starmer was personally involved in the decisions made."

Former BBC television and radio presenter Savile, who died in 2011, is believed to be one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.

He was never brought to justice for his crimes.

Pressure on PM over partygate continues

Mr Kwarteng also said it was not "inevitable" that the PM will be removed from office over the partygate scandal engulfing Downing Street.

Asked about Tory MP Sir Charles Walker's assertion that is the case, the business secretary replied: "He's entitled to his view, as I'm entitled to mine.

"And I have to say Trevor, you know this, lots and lots of people have said things are inevitable and they never happened over the last few years, and I just want to wait and see."

Renewing Labour's call for Mr Johnson to quit, the party's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told Phillips: "Our allies are laughing at him, our enemies are laughing at him, the public are ashamed of him, his backbenchers have a lack of confidence in him - it's on that basis that he should step down."

A total of 14 Tory MPs have now publicly called for the PM to go, with nine revealing they have submitted letters of no confidence in him.

Mr Johnson will face a vote of confidence in his leadership if 54 Tories - 15% of the party's 360 MPs - send letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.

Read more: Which Conservative MPs have called on the prime minister to quit?

Lord Barwell told Sky News he thinks there is a "strong case for change" but that there is not a "chance in hell" that the PM will resign.

"He's going to stay there unless Conservative MPs remove him or unless he loses an election. And so, you know, I don't see any prospect of him voluntarily standing down," he told Phillips.

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC's Sunday Morning programme the partygate row has been "hugely damaging" and the public are "very angry", adding it will be a "very difficult task" for the party to win back the trust of voters while Mr Johnson remains in office.