Boris Johnson could be forgiven for hoping that the new year might bring with it some better luck for his chaotic government. Towards the end of 2021, he found himself in his weakest position yet, embroiled in charges of sleaze levelled against his government following its botched handling of a lobbying scandal in November. At the same time, the surge of the Omicron variant brought him to head with the libertarian flank of the Tory party who rebelled against government plans to bring in Covid vaccination certificates.
2022 has so far failed to offer much respite. In terms of the current pandemic, Johnson appears to be on relatively stable footing – case numbers appear to have peaked already with hospitalisations mainly occurring amongst the unvaccinated. However, early indicators that Britain may be within reach of the pandemic’s end have done little to revive Johnson’s political fortunes. For as the country emerges from the Omicron variant, revelations of Downing Street parties during lockdown have recently come to light. One, which took place during the May 2020 lockdown and counted Johnson and his wife Carrie as attendees, instructed guests to ‘BYOB’ (bring your own booze). Another occurred on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, which saw the Queen forced to mourn in solitude in accordance with social distancing regulations in place at the time. Such events led to the extraordinary scenes at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. The words uttered by David Davis, a Tory MP who supported Johnson in the 2019 leadership election had a foreboding air to them. Quoting the words of a critic of Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet in 1940, he demanded that Johnson ‘in the name of God – go.’
Much hangs on the verdict of Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who has been commissioned to lead an independent investigation of the allegations. The government’s strategy so far has been not to engage in discussing the events until the conclusion of the inquiry. Such delaying tactics are unsustainable at best – Gray’s findings will almost certainly further implicate Johnson as having been in breach of the 2020 lockdown. At worst however, they illustrate the impending doom awaiting his premiership. For proof of this, one only needs to look at his excuses. Johnson claims to have been under the impression that such parties were ‘work events’, and that he was unaware that any rules were being violated. At a basic level, that he expects the public to take seriously the possibility that the Prime Minister himself was unable to intellectually grasp the rules he himself implemented is simply offensive. (Indeed if true, we are dealing with a problem of an entirely different magnitude.). Look deeper, however, and they crystallise the precariousness of the Prime Minister’s position; he cannot deny the allegations given that lying to Parliament is forbidden under the Ministerial Code. Such an act would by convention precede his resignation. On the other hand, if he concedes guilt his position is equally untenable; an outcome which creeps closer as Gray’s inquiry rumbles on.
The internal party fracturing has already begun. Prominent Conservatives such as Andrew Bridgen, a backbench MP who backed Johnson’s 2019 leadership bid, and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross have publicly come out against the Prime Minister. At the time of writing, one Tory MP has defected to the Labour party. Bridgen has openly admitted to handing in a letter of no confidence in the government to the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. If 54 letters are received in total, a vote of confidence in the leader will automatically be held, where Johnson will need the support of over half of his MPs to remain in post. If there is a way out of the crisis for Boris Johnson – which, given that the pile of allegations is mounting higher by the day, is not at all certain – it will involve rallying his party behind him. This is no easy task, and is largely not in his control. Boris Johnson sold himself to Tory MPs in 2019 by pitching himself as an election-winner, and his various mishaps and scandals have been tolerated on this basis. If Tory MPs detect that public anger directed towards Johnson is something that can’t be ridden back from, his leadership will become a liability against re-election. Gray’s report will reveal the facts behind the parties that took place in Downing Street – it will be up to Tory MPs to decide what fate will befall their leader.
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