Last weekend, ahead of a week that has seen the Metropolitan Police finally launch an investigation into the No 10 lockdown parties, Boris Johnson brooded at Chequers. The mood in the Prime Minister’s camp was sombre and confused. I understand that both Boris and Carrie Johnson do not believe they have done anything wrong, as they consider gatherings among those who worked at Downing Street during the pandemic to have been part of a “household bubble”.
This is an extravagant conception of a “household”. Downing Street contains around 100 rooms and is three interconnected buildings: numbers 10, 11 and 12. It also incorporates the grand Cabinet Office building at 70 Whitehall, to which it is connected by a private door.
The Johnsons’ stance may explain why Carrie Johnson is reported to have hosted two friends of hers (Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone, who at the time worked for Michael Gove at 70 Whitehall) in the Downing Street flat during lockdown despite a ban on household mixing.
It may also explain why Boris Johnson thought it acceptable to attend multiple social events at Downing Street, from the “bring your own booze” garden party on 20 May to his birthday celebration shortly thereafter. Both events, under the Johnsons’ reputed reasoning, were simply household gatherings.
The Johnsons are yet to make their reasoning public as it is unlikely to warrant much sympathy for a simple reason: it contradicts the laws passed by Johnson’s own government. As a senior Tory MP pointed out to me last week, the Covid regulations at the time did not allow for a celebratory “work event”, or any other social gathering, between different households.
What the Johnsons appear not to have understood is the scale of public anger towards them. As another senior Tory MP put it to me today (25 January): “All those people who made terrible sacrifices, who are now waking up in cold sweats thinking ‘F**k, I can’t believe I didn’t go see my dying mother or daughter’ – all that anger is now focused on No 10.”
The Johnson government, said the MP, “just didn’t understand the consequences of paralysing the nation with fear. It’s a national post-traumatic stress disorder, and that rage [among many people] is focused on the fact that while they suffered, good times were being had in No 10. I entirely understand that sense of grief and anger.” Many Tory MPs understand the anger towards Johnson, even if the Prime Minister does not.
The Tory MP, who is generally sympathetic to Johnson, offered another reason for his conduct: he is a people-pleaser. “I know what he’s like, he would have been asked [to these events] and have wanted to say thank you. He would have genuinely thought he was building team morale.” It is difficult, the MP added, for a prime minister to differentiate between the parts of No 10 that are their workplace and their residence. Nevertheless, the MP – who has not spoken out against the Prime Minister – believes Johnson should resign.
But the problem for Tory MPs is that Johnson does not appear ready to resign in the party’s best interests. “What we have is a PM who doesn’t particularly care about the party so much as his own fortunes,” said another Tory MP, a younger rising name in the party.
Johnson, they said, “is now a drag on the party in most parts of the country. That fact is broadly now understood.” But many MPs are cautious about pushing for a no-confidence vote before they are sure they can win it.
As Westminster waits for Sue Gray’s potentially imminent report, I am also told that the relationship between the party and Johnson is now “completely broken”, and that the whips’ operation “is the worst anyone can remember”.
The Chief Whip Mark Spencer – who is now facing an inquiry over Nusrat Ghani’s allegations of Islamophobia – is, said the MP, “completely incompetent. He deliberately didn’t want good people in the whips’ operation.” Johnson is entering his moment of greatest peril with a weak and depleted parliamentary operation just when he needs its strength the most.