Consider the cunning plan. A Prime Minister who is a stranger to the truth needs help to complete a madcap adventure – let’s call it Brexit – which, in part for his own political advantage, he has decided to make the cause of his career. Knowing himself well enough to understand that he cannot concentrate on anything long enough to absorb the detail, he enlists the help of a cavalier so notorious and so temperamental that a previous prime minister had intervened to have him sacked. What could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything – and now that cavalier, Dominic Cummings, is close to bringing down the unfit leader he unaccountably helped to build up.
It is now clear, thanks in part to the constantly giving gift of Cummings’s blog, that on 20 May 2020 in the Downing Street rose garden there was a party to which about 100 people had been invited by Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. This was a month after Cummings himself infamously travelled to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight in another lockdown-stretching manoeuvre. On the very spot where Cummings set up his trestle table for a press conference on 25 May to declare he had no case to answer, around 40 staff at Downing Street had been enjoying a “bring your own booze” party five days earlier.
This was during the first national lockdown. It was a time when people were frightened. On the day of the Downing Street party, the Metropolitan Police posted a tweet reminding the public they could go outside only with those they lived with or with one person from another household. The streets were deserted. Many people have testified to the tragedies they endured – the family members they never saw again – because they were dutifully obeying the rules. The Downing Street garden party was so flagrant, so couldn’t-care-less, that it is truly astonishing. Every other instance has been at least arguable, if not edifying. This one is amazing. As some staff members wrote in messages after receiving Reynolds’s email, what on Earth was he thinking?
Whether or not the Prime Minister joined in the fun is something he could clear up at once. He could simply confirm that he was there. The longer he goes without denying he attended, the more obvious it is that he must have been. Johnson’s defensive line, delivered with a smirk, that it is all a matter for the internal inquiry, conducted by Sue Gray, the second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, will never hold. To have to ask someone else to investigate whether you attended a party is absurd. The Prime Minister is in serious trouble this time and it could conceivably be terminal.
The question now is whether any of the mechanisms for removing a leader will work. Getting rid of a prime minister who does not wish to leave is very difficult. Even a severely wounded politician such as Boris Johnson can limp on. If the Gray inquiry criticises him directly it will accelerate the strong doubts felt by Tory backbenchers, but it is unlikely to be so unequivocal as to finish him off. It is, in fact, an invidious position in which to place any senior civil servant, and not just because the last head of the inquiry, Simon Case, had to recuse himself. Gray has to work with the government after she reports; her conflict in being judge and jury is obvious. The Met, which has been decidedly reluctant to get involved, has contacted the Cabinet Office. If it pursues the case and concludes the Prime Minister has broken the law, then the Gray report will cease to matter.
Perhaps Gray might knock him out indirectly anyway. Johnson told parliament in no uncertain terms that he was furious when he was made aware there had been parties in Downing Street. He has variously said he did not know about them and certainly hadn’t been to any. Though Johnson has no respect for due process, he has enough colleagues in the Conservative Party who still regard misleading parliament as egregious that he might not survive.
The future of the Prime Minister is, as always, a political judgement. The conclusions of internal inquiries acquire different force depending on the strength or weakness of the political leader. If Johnson is broken by this incident it will be the public, reflected in Tory MPs’ panic, who do the deed. The next set of polls – the first to include this incident – will be critical. If MPs see another lurch downwards in both Johnson’s personal rating and the likelihood of the public to vote Conservative, then Team Truss and Sunak’s Supporters will be out in force. The Goves and the Hunts will be cocking an ear and Sajid Javid will look up from his Covid spreadsheets and smile. A more likely catalyst for action might be a disastrous showing in the local elections in May.
There ought to be lots of shame-faced Tory MPs at the moment. They are simply seeing the consequences they brought on themselves, and on us. They selected a man they knew to be ethically unfit for office to be their leader. They fooled themselves that he would change, but politics always finds you out; there is nothing like politics at the top level for revealing character.
Johnson might yet survive his latest infraction. He would be forced to revamp his Downing Street operation but none of it will make any difference. He is who he is. He is a party animal and now everyone can see it.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage