Throughout his political career, Boris Johnson has defied all odds. He has been defeated, written off, mocked. At one stage, he left the House of Commons completely. Yet no matter how down-and-out he has looked, how bleak his prospects have appeared, he has always managed to recover. His party chose him as leader partly for this ability to pull off the seemingly impossible. Yet now the British prime minister faces the gravest peril of his premiership. For the first time, his fate is out of his hands.
His excuse for attending a drinks party in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street after passing such restrictive lockdown laws is that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event” — even though his private secretary had convened the event via a mass email asking staff to “bring your own booze.” The No. 10 garden, Johnson said, is an extension of the office, so it was all work. As he spoke at Prime Minister’s Questions, Tory Members of Parliament sat silently behind him — glad for once to be wearing their masks.
These MPs are anxious not only about the general public’s fury, but about the rage in their own Conservative Associations. The prime minister’s approval rating — hitherto his great strength — is falling fast and is now almost as low as Theresa May’s towards the end of her premiership. When prime ministers lose popularity, they seldom regain it. The latest accusations are more damaging because they come after a string of events that raise serious questions about the direction of the Johnson government. What was striking about the Tory rebellion against vaccine passports, for instance, was how many of the rebels had backed Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest. He has alienated allies and his enemies are lying in wait. Where, if anywhere, does he go from here?
Westminster is normally full of people who claim to have a smart solution to every problem. “If only the prime minister would follow my advice” is a regular lament from ministers. But loyal cabinet members admit they are stumped as to what Johnson can do other than wait for civil servant Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street and the lockdown rules. Her verdict had been expected by the end of the month, but it will be no surprise if the latest revelations cause further delay.
If Gray decides that the prime minister breached the regulations, it’s hard to see how he can stay. Will she go that far? Precedent suggests that civil servants, both active and retired, are understandably reluctant to be seen to be forcing out a sitting prime minister. This is one factor that might save him. Robin Butler’s review of the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons program couched its conclusions in such careful language that the media had moved on before people realized just how damning it was.
Just last week, Lord Geidt — the independent adviser on ministers’ interests — wrote Johnson a brutally worded letter over the prime minister and the Cabinet Office’s failure to disclose information to him about the redecoration of the Downing Street apartment. But he did not accuse Johnson of having broken the ministerial code, a conclusion that would have forced a resignation.
But unlike, say, the use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, Partygate is not a complex issue. Even if Sue Gray merely sets out the facts, it will draw a visceral response from the public: this is an issue everyone can understand. Britons remember the first lockdown and just how strict the rules were then. They weren’t going to “work events.”
The mood among Tory MPs is bleak. Politicians have had emails from furious constituents, asking for explanations. All of these MPs would like explanations themselves. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, has gone so far as to say that Johnson should resign if he broke the law. Many politicians spent lockdown making sure they could never be accused of bending the rules, so the claims about No. 10 parties have hit them hard.
Just a few days ago, Johnson appeared to have a chance to repair relations with his parliamentary party. His decision not to impose more restrictions before Christmas pleased them — and it was being vindicated by events. The Omicron variant has proved to be nowhere near as dangerous as Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advisers believed, and now seems to be on the way out in England, with far fewer hospitalizations than last time around. Johnson had held his nerve and navigated his way through without another lockdown. He avoided the draconian restrictions being imposed in so many other countries.
All that goodwill has now evaporated. Instead, Tory MPs are debating the prime minister’s future in the tearoom and — in a sign of his diminished authority — not even bothering to lower their voices as they do so. It is ironic that the improving Covid outlook is changing the calculus for some Tory MPs about a leadership contest. A few weeks ago, even Johnson’s most ardent foes argued that it was daft to have a no-confidence vote given the situation with the virus; it would have looked beyond self-indulgent. “The last thing they want to see is politicians squabbling,” said one cabinet member at the time. “And if we had a leadership contest now, that’s precisely how it would come across.”
But now there is a sense that with the virus in retreat and all restrictions likely to be lifted later this month, it might be possible to change horses. It will always be a messy process, but there are still two years to go until the next election. Might it be best to get it over with quickly?
Compounding the problem for Johnson is lingering resentment about the Owen Paterson debacle, where the PM attempted to protect the then-Northern Ireland secretary from a suspension vote after he had breached lobbying rules. Johnson reversed his position and Paterson later resigned. The whips were furious that their chief, Mark Spencer, received so much of the blame when they felt he was just following orders from No. 10. The result, one Johnson ministerial loyalist complains, is that “the whips’ office are on a go-slow.” As Labour went on the Partygate attack, the whips made little effort to get ministers and backbenchers into the chamber — the empty Tory benches spoke volumes.
Crucially, this does not mean that Johnson will resign. Party grandees are holding meetings to discuss what to do about the situation. But as one senior Tory MP puts it, “The ruthlessness of the Conservative party is often overstated.” Theresa May was allowed to continue for two years after she lost the party’s majority in a snap election that she had chosen to call. Her fate was sealed on that election night, but she was kept in place because the party was not ready to agree on a successor.
One MP with a better understanding of the prime minister’s position than most observes that “the dam has not yet broken even if it is creaking.” Alarmingly for No. 10, however, the mood among Tory MPs is getting worse rather than better. One MP close to Johnson admits that “the only people supporting Boris are those who think their seats depend on him.” After recent opinion polls, the number of those MPs is declining.
Some of those around Johnson continue to have confidence that it will all be OK. They say that his career shows an ability to weather all kinds of storms. But there is a crucial difference between now and the first phase of his premiership. Then, the Tories needed him to “get Brexit done” and beat Jeremy Corbyn. This meant that they were prepared to overlook things that would have given them pause in different circumstances. That tolerance has gone.
One secretary of state frets that “he doesn’t seem to have anything else to offer at the moment.” Perhaps the most potent anti-Johnson argument on the Tory benches is that he has, in the words of one former minister, “outlived his usefulness.” The argument is that Johnson was needed to deal with the extraordinary circumstances of a political system gridlocked by Brexit and the threat of Corbyn: a one-off politician for extraordinary times. Would the Tory party do better to turn to a more conventional leader, a more natural governing figure?
Added to this is the argument that Johnson’s departure would allow the Tories to show the public that they understand the anger over the hypocrisy, the sense that there was one rule for those in power and another for everyone else during the pandemic. One MP who is considering whether to send in his letter calling for Johnson’s head points out that “people are pissed off with Boris, not the government.”
Even the few cabinet ministers who are confident that Johnson will get through this crisis are worried about what happens next. One warns, “There are limits to the number of lives that the cat has.”
Cabinet loyalists are most worried about the local elections in May as the trigger for a Tory vote of no confidence. They fear that bad results in those contests will lead to Tory MPs concluding that Johnson is no longer a vote-winner; and his relationship with the party has always been hugely transactional. Tory MPs elected him leader because they thought he could win. The moment they no longer think so, his position becomes almost impossibly vulnerable.
With the May elections fast approaching, the prime minister needs to demonstrate that he has raised his game. Even before these latest revelations, discreet meetings had taken place in No. 10 to discuss a “reset” — an attempt to put the government on a better footing. But in yet another misstep, the small selection of attendees invited to these meetings has caused irritation in the building. There is a view that one of the things this administration suffers from is a lack of internal criticism. Those who might disagree are kept out of meetings. So bad ideas (such as the attempt to exonerate Owen Paterson) aren’t nipped in the bud. There is a worry that the “reset” meetings are suffering from the same problem.
There is once again talk among Tory ministers and MPs about the need to bring more people into Downing Street in order to broaden the prime minister’s circle. But it will be hard to persuade people to take up this offer unless they feel that Johnson is prepared to submit to the kind of discipline he did during his London mayoral campaigns or the last general election.
The prime minister has never been one for contrition. He has long believed that the best way to handle scandals is to stay quiet and hope something else turns up, so that the agenda moves on. That won’t work this time. He went for an apology at PMQs. He must now hope that the public and his parliamentary party are in a forgiving mood. If the voters aren’t prepared to forgive, his MPs won’t be either.