'Partygate' is not Boris Johnson's only problem

Britain's prime minister also needs to get ahead of a different political crisis

If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thinks that by jetting off to India for a long-delayed summit with Indian premier Narendra Modi he can leave his domestic political troubles behind him he may need to think again.

Mr Johnson had originally planned to visit India in January last year, but the trip was cancelled as a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the UK.

Now, as Mr Johnson arrives in Delhi for planned talks with Mr Modi on Friday on expanding trade and defence ties between the two countries, the UK Prime Minister must be wishing he had curtailed his own participation in a number of Downing Street events at the height of the pandemic that are causing him serious political damage.

Following last week’s decision by London’s Metropolitan Police to issue him with a fixed penalty notice for attending a lockdown party in Downing Street, Mr Johnson has come under renewed pressure to resign. Opposition MPs have had a field day in the Commons this week claiming that Mr Johnson has become the first British prime minister to have broken the law.

The fine is particularly galling for Mr Johnson, as it shows that he was guilty of breaking laws that he was responsible for implementing.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the UN Climate Change Conference Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, on November 2, 2021. Pool via Reuters

And while receiving a fixed penalty notice is no more serious than receiving a speeding ticket, confirmation that Mr Johnson has been found to have broken the law has obliged him to make a grovelling apology to the Commons for his conduct.

“As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger, and I said that people had a right to expect better of their prime minister." he told a packed House of Commons on Tuesday. He insisted that public anger over the affair, which has become known as “partygate”, had given him an “even greater sense of obligation” to remain in Downing Street to lead international efforts to help Ukraine, while tackling the mounting cost-of-living crisis at home.

Despite the apparent sincerity of his apology, Mr Johnson’s performance failed to convince his political opponents, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer renewing his call for the prime minister to resign, accusing his rival of making only “mealy-mouthed apologies”. Mr Johnson also encountered bitter criticism from members of his own Conservative Party, with Mark Harper, who briefly served as chief whip under former Conservative Premier David Cameron, claiming Mr Johnson was “no longer worthy” to hold the office of prime minister, and should stand down.

Fortunately for Mr Johnson, not all of his Conservative backbenchers feel the same way, and their continued backing for the Prime Minister, albeit reluctantly, means he is unlikely to face a serious leadership challenge – for the moment at least.

Opposition calls for Mr Johnson to resign have been undermined by the revelation that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has also received a fine for attending the same event, at which Carrie Johnson, the premier’s wife, presented her husband with a birthday cake shortly before he convened a vital Covid-19 meeting. Mrs Johnson has also received a penalty notice.

Supporters of Mr Johnson argue that if everyone who has been caught up in the wide-ranging police investigation into illegal lockdown gatherings in Whitehall were forced to resign, there would be no one left to run the country.

Mr Johnson certainly believes that his apology should be sufficient to draw a line under this whole sorry saga. Speaking to journalists accompanying him on his flight to India, Mr Johnson urged his critics to concentrate on the “things that make a difference to the electorate, and not politicians themselves”, and vowed that he would still be in office to fight the next general election in two years' time.

Boris Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (right), during a visit to the Pizza Pilgrims restaurant in east London on June 26, 2020. PA Wire

But for Mr Johnson to survive in office that long, he will still need to overcome a number of significant hurdles, not least relating to the ongoing police investigation into other alleged illegal gatherings that are said to have taken place in Downing Street during lockdown.

Political observers believe that Mr Johnson may be linked to another six such events, and there is little doubt that the political pressure on him to resign would intensify, both from the Opposition and his own party, if he were to receive any further fines.

And even if Mr Johnson does manage to survive the political storm over “partygate”, there are many other challenges lurking on the horizon that need to be negotiated if he is to fulfil his pledge to fight the next general election.

The first obstacle he needs to overcome are next month’s local elections, where Conservative Party activists fear the anger ordinary voters feel about Mr Johnson’s involvement in “partygate” will cost them dearly at the polls, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats likely to pick up votes from disgruntled Conservatives. A wipe-out in the local elections could result in Conservative MPs reviewing their leadership options ahead of the general election.

By far the biggest challenge Mr Johnson faces, though, and one that has been obscured by the “partygate” row, is Britain’s deepening cost-of-living crisis, which has seen working families hit by a toxic cocktail of rising inflation fuelled by the recent dramatic increase in global energy costs.

While rising inflation is a challenge facing all of the world’s major economies, the plight of working families in Britain has been made worse by the Johnson government’s decision to raise taxes to a level not since the 1950s to fund its ambitious health and energy reform programmes.

Mr Johnson and his senior ministers argue the extra finance is crucial if they are to undertake a wholesale reform of the health and social care sectors while at the same time achieving their targets for net zero carbon emissions by the end of the decade.

But critics warn that the timing of the measures, which were introduced earlier this month when families were already struggling to meet rising costs, will have a negative impact on economic growth. An International Monetary Fund report published earlier this week warned that Britain is facing the weakest growth of any major economy next year because high taxes, combined with higher inflation, will continue to batter consumer confidence in the UK.

And if this prediction proves correct, then it will be Mr Johnson’s mismanagement of the British economy, not his ill-advised attendance at illegal Downing Street gatherings, that will finally bring down the curtain on his political career.

Published: April 22, 2022, 4:00 AM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National