Boris Johnson stood in the House of Commons today and admitted to attending a party in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown. After months of denials, this is the first confirmation we have had that the Prime Minister himself was at odds with his own Covid guidance, and perhaps with the law. So is Johnson toast? Or will he cheat political death yet again?
Three ways Boris Johnson goes
He resigns. It all gets too much for a man who loves to be loved. Assailed on all sides by people telling him they think he’s toxic and needs to resign, a demoralised PM begins to believe them, loses heart and gives up. The shame of being forced out in a scandal is softened by the relief of no longer having to struggle miserably on.
In the Commons on Wednesday, Johnson said he wasn’t resigning – for now. Told repeatedly to quit, by Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and others, a deflated and downbeat PM advised them all to wait until the senior civil servant Sue Gray completes her investigation into various parties and gatherings. “I will certainly respond as appropriate,” he said.
Tories oust him. Sick of their inboxes being clogged up with rage-fuelled emails from constituents, Conservative MPs put pen to paper themselves and send letters of no confidence to Graham Brady. Their calculation will be that it’s better to get rid of Johnson quickly than to wait to pay the price themselves at the next general election. If the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs receives 54 of these letters, a confidence vote is then triggered among Tory MPs. If the PM loses that vote, he’s out and an election begins for a new leader. There are signs patience is wearing thin on the Tory back benches, and on 12 January, the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross became the first major party figure to call on Johnson to resign.
Sue Gray and the police force him out. Scotland Yard has apparently been in touch with the Cabinet Office amid questions over whether the 20 May 2020 garden party drinks broke lockdown laws. If it turns out the PM breaks the law, it becomes difficult for him to continue. If he attends or hosts a lawbreaking party, it’s essentially just as hard to carry on. Johnson has put a lot of faith in Sue Gray, a top official in the Cabinet Office and former internal ethics enforcer. Yet she has her own reputation for rigour to uphold and is unlikely to do him too many favours. She’s seen prime ministers come and go and is said to be fearsome and fearless. There are other regulators, including the parliamentary standards commissioner, who may also take an interest.
Three ways Johnson stays
Time. It’s the best healer, and the Christmas break gave MPs the chance to cool off, after a dismal few weeks of Johnson’s unforced errors. The wound has now reopened but Gray’s inquiry isn’t yet complete and Johnson will be hoping that his apology buys him the time he needs to make it at least to the point when she delivers her findings. Then he’ll be hoping that no civil servant – not even the formidable Gray – will be brave enough to stick the knife into the PM. If her report sticks to the facts – and the facts go no further than the PM himself has admitted – he could find the pressure eases. The news agenda moves fast, the threat from the Omicron variant appears to be receding and Johnson may be given a reprieve yet again by some good news on the waning of the pandemic.
Timing. Even Tories who think Johnson must go will be wary of moving too soon. There is currently no clear and obvious successor. David Cameron quit in 2016 because he couldn’t stand the Brexit result. Theresa May was eventually eased out but only when it was clear to everyone that Johnson was the preferred replacement. The mechanics of removing a prime minister require clarity and determination from the Conservative Party. If Tories trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership, and he wins it, he will be safe from another challenge for 12 months, under party rules. They would be stuck with him for another year, taking them closer to an election and making a decision to switch leaders even more perilous. If he loses a confidence vote, a bloody leadership contest with a crowded field of rivals could follow, and the party could be badly split as a result. Some believe May’s local elections will be key. If the Tories do well, it could help Johnson cling on.
Stalemate. Johnson can be stubborn. Until relatively recently, he has been reluctant to offer up sacrificial scalps when scandals have engulfed his government. He will be even more unwilling to offer up his own. There may be little point appealing to him to do the honourable thing. Many of his critics and some of his friends regard him as almost impossible to shame. It may be conventional for a minister to resign if they mislead the Commons, but Johnson was elected as a leader who defies convention. He may choose stubbornly to tough it out.
Tory MPs, equally, may struggle to unite behind a clear alternative. Would Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or Jeremy Hunt really have the star quality to keep the red wall blue? Or is it better to allow Johnson the chance to prove he still has powers to win elections in parts of the country other Tories can’t reach? The result of these calculations could be disgruntled MPs and a hollowed out PM forced to cohabit unhappily at Westminster for a while yet.