Boris Johnson faces political peril over Downing Street lockdown party

Britain's prime minister will have to fend off inquiries into alleged 'partygate' rule-breaking

Hope of the long Christmas break restoring Boris Johnson’s authority has diminished considerably with “partygate” blunders refusing to abate.

Any respite achieved in the holidays has receded, after the leaked email inviting staff to a party in Downing Street’s garden indicated lockdown rules had been flouted.

The next two weeks will certainly be uncomfortable for Mr Johnson, but could his current trajectory prove terminal?

Having played a role in the downfall of two recent prime ministers, Mr Johnson understands only too well that his party is merciless towards failing leaders. The Conservatives have fallen in the opinion polls following a series of mishaps since November that culminated in 101 of its MPs rebelling against new lockdown rules last month.

Pressure on the prime minister went up a notch on after it emerged that police were in contact with the British Cabinet Office over claims Mr Johnson's aide had allegedly organised a "bring your own booze" party on May 20, 2020.

List of alleged parties

 

May 12, 2020: PM and his wife Carrie attend 'work meeting' with at least 17 staff 

May 20, 2020: They attend 'bring your own booze party'

Nov 27, 2020: PM gives speech at leaving party for his staff 

Dec 10, 2020: Staff party held by then-education secretary Gavin Williamson 

Dec 13, 2020: PM and his wife throw a party

Dec 14, 2020: London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey holds staff event at Conservative Party headquarters 

Dec 15, 2020: PM takes part in a staff quiz 

Dec 18, 2020: Downing Street Christmas party 

At the time, the government was ordering ordinary members of the public not to meet, even outdoors, and tight restrictions were in place on social mixing, including at funerals.

Mr Johnson is expected to make a statement to lawmakers in the House of Commons to bolster his position against growing criticism before he faces off with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions at noon on Wednesday.

John Caudwell, a major Conservative Party donor, lambasted the government's perceived "arrogance and hypocrisy" and issued the prime minister an ultimatum.

"Sort it out, Boris, or step aside and let someone else sort it out so that the Tories aren't wiped out at the next election," the Phones4U founder said.

Backbench Conservative MP Nigel Mills said Mr Johnson’s political career is unlikely to survive if he is found to have attended one or more of the lockdown-breaching parties being investigated.

“It is utterly untenable, we have seen people resign for far less than that. If the prime minister knowingly attended a party, I can’t see how he can survive,” Mr Mills told BBC News.

“I don’t think we need an inquiry to work out whether the prime minister was there. He knows whether he was there or not. Just come out and say what happened.

“If he was there he better try a hugely fulsome apology and see if the country will buy it but I’m not sure they will.”

Mr Johnson now has to face the formidable investigative skills of Sue Gray, the senior civil servant heading the inquiry into alleged breaches of lockdown rules. Ms Gray is exacting in pursuit of facts, as former deputy prime minister Damian Green, MP, would testify, after he resigned over the misuse of computers as a result of one of her investigations.

Her report into “partygate”, due in about two weeks, will be a perilous moment for Mr Johnson. If it is found that both the prime minister and Downing Street staff broke lockdown laws then the Metropolitan Police will almost certainly be called to investigate.

There will then be a long period of uncertainty while the prime minister awaits that outcome, with a prosecution possible but unlikely.

What the UK looked like on May 20, 2020 - in pictures

But the question remains how much opprobrium can the prime minister endure before it becomes politically fatal?

The portents are troubling. Twitter accounts relay outrage that while the British public endured incarceration the politicians apparently partied.

The latest revelations have allowed Mr Johnson to become an open target, further undermining his authority. On Wednesday Mr Johnson was labelled a “serial liar” who had severely undermined public trust, in a comment from a former colleague and Conservative MP, Dominic Grieve, who bitterly opposed Brexit.

The nerves of Conservative MPs who won the former Labour “red wall” seats in the 2019 election are unsettled as they endure the resurgence of opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Will they stick with Mr Johnson’s proven electioneering skills or twist the knife?

The problem for Mr Johnson is two-fold. In becoming prime minister he made a large number of enemies by undermining his predecessor, Theresa May. And there was Brexit. There remains a cohort of Conservative MPs utterly unreconciled to his leadership because he was the key protagonist in Britain’s painful exit from the European Union, a move that also unseated another prime minister, David Cameron.

Mr Johnson therefore knows his party is as ruthless as the Roman Senate in using political assassination to ensure survival.

Therefore he desperately needs some good news to deflect from the toxicity that is dragging his party down in the polls and weakening his control over MPs.

On the scale of world events, a single drinks party in a garden in May 2020 might not register too severely. It could all be a “storm in a teacup” that will be forgotten come the next general election in a year or two, believes Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.

“This is one of these media storms,” he told The National. “There will be an investigation, which will discover that he hasn't broken any rules and in three months' time most people will have forgotten this because there'll be other bigger issues to deal with.”

It may be that, following publication of Ms Gray’s report, resignations will follow from Downing Street officials, deflecting attention from the prime minister.

It may also be that Britain finds itself free from Covid-19, with a healthy economy and Brexit issues resolved, all of which Mr Johnson will take the credit for, with his authority restored.

But there is serious political risk ahead. Another misstep could be fatal.

Updated: January 12th 2022, 8:31 AM
List of alleged parties

 

May 12, 2020: PM and his wife Carrie attend 'work meeting' with at least 17 staff 

May 20, 2020: They attend 'bring your own booze party'

Nov 27, 2020: PM gives speech at leaving party for his staff 

Dec 10, 2020: Staff party held by then-education secretary Gavin Williamson 

Dec 13, 2020: PM and his wife throw a party

Dec 14, 2020: London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey holds staff event at Conservative Party headquarters 

Dec 15, 2020: PM takes part in a staff quiz 

Dec 18, 2020: Downing Street Christmas party