I have no idea what Sue Gray will say in her report on “partygate” this week. Nor, I suspect, do those journalists who purport to have inside knowledge of her inquiry.
But this much I can say with near certainty. However damning that report proves to be, Boris Johnson will not do the honourable thing and resign. Our shameless Prime Minister will instead use all possible forms of political skulduggery to cling to power.
He has allegedly deployed his henchmen to bribe, blackmail and otherwise coerce Conservative MPs into backing him – so much so that a senior Tory backbencher, William Wragg, chairman of the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, has gone to the police.
He has already rushed out any number of half-baked policy announcements – defunding the BBC, sending asylum seekers to Ghana, lifting Covid restrictions – in an attempt to distract public attention from his predicament. To hell with the national interest.
In a desperate attempt to save his own skin, we can expect Johnson to sacrifice any number of loyal subordinates – Dan Rosenfield, his chief of staff; Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary; and Mark Spencer, the chief whip, for starters. As usual, Johnson will blame everyone but himself. So much for taking “full responsibility”.
He may choose to release only parts of the report, withholding the most incriminating evidence. He will doubtless offer parliament and the country a further carefully worded non-apology, another show of faux contrition. He will rush loyalists on to the airwaves to “spin” for him. He will deploy Clinton-esque sophistry (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) to insist, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that technically or knowingly he broke no Covid rules.
Gray’s report may be so damning, so unequivocal in its conclusions, that not even the fabled “greased piglet” can survive. But if she leaves Johnson any possible escape route, the narcissist in No 10 will surely seize it. As a “friend” of Johnson’s told the Times: “He wants to outlast Dave (Cameron). He won’t accept the last Etonian MP having survived longer than him.”
If he clings on, Johnson would be doing a further grave disservice to a country on which he has already inflicted so much deep and lasting damage over the past few years.
Britain is in a parlous state – or what Tony Blair described in a speech on 20 January as a “1970s-style decline”. Inflation is soaring to levels not seen since the early 1990s. The tax burden will shortly reach its highest level since the early 1950s. Fuel prices are surging. Rising interest rates will clobber homeowners. The waiting list for NHS operations stands at six million in England for the first time. The backlog of cases in criminal courts exceeds 60,000. The social care system is close to collapse. The civil service is broken and demoralised. England’s Union with Scotland is in jeopardy. Relations with France and Europe are dire. The pensions system is no longer “fit for purpose”. Our rivers are being fouled by raw sewage. The list goes on.
Johnson’s government has been so preoccupied with, and paralysed by, “partygate” this past month that it has been quite incapable of addressing this legion of pressing problems.
As Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, said on 21 January: “This is a government that at the moment is simply not capable of doing the ordinary business of government in a competent and sensible way because it is overwhelmed by the headlines that surround dreadful events that went on in Downing Street.”
Little will change even if Johnson does somehow manage to survive in office. On the contrary, at a time when Britain desperately needs strong, inspiring and enlightened leadership, the Prime Minister will be a spent force – divisive, diminished and utterly lacking in authority.
As I have written before, a man so manifestly unfit to be prime minister cannot suddenly become fit for the office. Johnson may change his team, but he cannot change the deep flaws in his own character. A congenital liar will not suddenly become honest and truthful. A born charlatan will not suddenly become a model of propriety. He cannot suddenly develop the discipline, focus, spine and seriousness of purpose that have eluded him.
His two years as prime minister have been punctuated by scandal after scandal, inquiry after inquiry – PPE contracts for cronies, selling peerages to donors, “wallpapergate”, free luxury holidays, Jennifer Arcuri. It would be surprising if “partygate” was the last.
Brexit is done, sort of. So beyond the vague notion of levelling up, for which there is no new money, he no longer has a compelling programme for government, no coherent creed or convictions, behind which he can seek to rally voters. As Blair said: “The real problem is the absence of a government plan for Britain’s future.”
To be fair, Johnson has finally succeeded in uniting the country, but not in the way he might have hoped. It is united against him. Polls now show that a substantial majority of voters believe him to be a liar, no longer trust or like him, and want him to go. He has a net favourability rating worse even than that of Theresa May at her lowest point.
The Prime Minister does still have a “stonking” majority in the House of Commons, but even his own party is now hopelessly split. Potential successors, including the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, are quietly forming their rival factions and will henceforth put their own political interests ahead of Johnson’s. Cabinet ministers hesitate to defend him on radio and television. Scotland’s Tories have disowned him. Red Wall Tories wanting more state intervention are pitted against right wing free-marketeers demanding a low-tax, low regulation Singapore-on-Thames. Libertarians hated his Covid lockdowns. Those moderate One Nation Tories who survived his early purges have always loathed the man.
The Prime Minister who boasted of “taking back control” has lost it. He no longer has the clout to bend cabinet and parliament to his will. Policies will henceforth be determined not by the common good, but by Johnson’s need to survive and by what he can get past his rebellious backbenchers and the right-wing tabloids. Expect plenty of red meat while he backtracks on tax increases and “net zero” carbon emissions.
In the longer term, however, not even supercharged populism will save Johnson. Whatever Gray’s report says, he has been irrevocably exposed as the reckless, feckless elitist who makes rules for others but breaks them himself; as the “people’s champion” who mocks and despises those he purports to represent.
The “will of the people” – on which Johnson set so much store when ramming Brexit through parliament – is that he should resign. It is, as David Davis said, that “you have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.”
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed