British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose the most difficult moment of his term so far to burst into song in his office back in February when the outcry over partygate had hit a peak. “I will survive,” he sang, together with his newly appointed adviser Guto Harri. The song sounded out of tune with the times then, but it now appears he had good reason to sing.
Johnson seems to have survived partygate. Found guilty in a police inquiry, yes. The first prime minister of Britain ever to have been penalised for breaking the law, true. A huge setback for his party in the local elections held on May 5, without a doubt. But the threat to his premiership appears still to have passed, barring one last hurdle.
That will be the publication of the report by the Whitehall official Sue Gray, due next week. That report is expected to name senior civil servants who broke lockdown guidelines. It is expected to also name the Prime Minister. But after Johnson paid a 50-pound fine and closed the matter, the Sue Gray report is not expected to bite him further.
Cynics have read a plot into this, that Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey had warned of when the police inquiry was launched. That inquiry, he said, “may give the impression of a conspiracy or cover-up”. The inquiry had been ordered, he said, to defuse the crisis and to buy time for Johnson. A couple of months later the barbs aimed at him appear to have exhausted themselves.
If conspiracy it was, it has succeeded in the best traditions of Yes Minister — or Yes, Prime Minister. The sharpest thing that Sue Gray can now say is not expected to bite Johnson. The unrest within his own party MPs has in the meanwhile died down. Their great fear was that voter anger against Johnson could spill over to threaten their own chances of re-election.
The great signpost for that was to be the May 5 election to the local councils. The setback to the Conservatives was significant, but it was not the washout that a wave of threatening anger against Johnson could have brought. Some MPs who had demanded Johnson step down, always well short of the 53 needed to trigger a vote of no-confidence, withdrew their resignation.
It helped greatly that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was cornered with a ‘beergate’ of his own. Allegations surfaced in the tabloid media, as a result of resourceful Conservative digging no doubt, that he had attended a party through the lockdown where beer and Indian food were served. The Labour leader is still facing an inquiry over that.
Amid the doubts and the broad debacle in the local elections, the Conservatives managed actually to win through a majority to take control of the Harrow Council, a tell-tale signal that they could, if they tried hard enough, more than neutralise any voter anger over partygate.
The last move in the saga will come over who Sue Gray names, and what she chooses to say about them, particularly of course the Prime Minister. The police have issued 126 fines to 83 individuals, without naming anyone. Helpfully again for Johnson, no second fine was slapped on him.
Gray has sent notices to a number of individuals she intends to name, to reply with any objection to that by 5pm on Sunday. Boris Johnson has said it would be “entirely up to Sue Gray” whom she names. The publication of that report could potentially be delayed if anyone she wants named were to seek legal protection against such a move.
The critical question in that report would be a determination by Gray whether Boris Johnson went into the parties – that Downing Street calls “gatherings” – knowing that these were parties, and that he was breaking the law. Johnson offered the defence earlier that he did not know he was breaking the law.
An interim report by Gray earlier found “failures of leadership and judgment”. She said some events should not have been “allowed to take place”. Whether these should have been stopped by Boris Johnson or by Downing Street officials will determine how sharply her finger points at the PM. Either way, Johnson does not look like he’s going anywhere.
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