Crisis deepens for Boris Johnson as four aides quit within four hours

British PM’s head of policy leaves in protest over smear against Labour leader Keir Starmer

Boris Johnson's leadership plunged deeper into crisis on Thursday night when four of his most senior Downing Street aides resigned within four hours. Head of policy Munira Mirza, who had worked with Mr Johnson for 14 years since he was mayor of London, left in protest against his failure to apologise for a smear against Labour leader Keir Starmer.

"I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice. There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse," she said in her resignation letter.

Head of communications Jack Doyle resigned a couple of hours later, telling colleagues that recent weeks had taken "a terrible toll" on his family life. Mr Doyle was reported to have attended at least one of the parties at Downing Street being investigated by the Metropolitan Police for possible, serious breaches of lockdown rules.

Martin Reynolds, who issued the invitation to a "bring your own booze" party in the Downing Street garden during lockdown in May 2020, resigned as the prime minister's principal private secretary. And Dan Rosenfield is leaving his position as Mr Johnson's chief of staff a year after he came into Downing Street with a brief to restore order following the departure of Dominic Cummings.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the prime minister had agreed to Mr Rosenfield’s and Mr Reynolds’s resignations.

“He has thanked them both for their significant contribution to government and No 10, including work on the pandemic response and economic recovery. They will continue in their roles while successors are appointed, and recruitment for both posts is under way,” the spokesperson said.

Mr Johnson's suggestion that Sir Keir, a former director of public prosecutions, was responsible for failing to prosecute Savile has drawn outrage from many Conservative MPs. The prime minister defended his remarks in the House of Commons on Wednesday but rowed back a little on Thursday.

“I’m talking not about the leader of the opposition’s personal record when he was DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions,” he said.

Ms Mirza said the clarification was inadequate because it did not include an apology and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, the frontrunner to succeed Mr Johnson, directly criticised the remarks during a Downing Street press conference on Thursday evening.

“Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it, and I’m glad that the prime minister clarified what he meant,” he said.

Thirteen Conservative MPs have called publicly for Mr Johnson’s resignation and others are believed to have submitted letters calling for a no confidence vote in his leadership. Fifty-four MPs must request a vote for it to go ahead and if Mr Johnson wins, there can be no further challenge to his leadership for 12 months.

If he loses, he is barred from taking part in the leadership contest which sees MPs choose two candidates for a run-off before the entire Conservative party membership.