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Why Boris Johnson’s partygate headache isn’t over yet

Once the police investigation concludes, Tory MPs could turn against the Prime Minister as quickly as they unified behind him.

By Freddie Hayward

The Metropolitan Police has announced that it has started interviewing “key witnesses” to the Downing Street parties in a reminder of the problems lurking in the background for Boris Johnson as he responds to the war in Ukraine. The Met said yesterday that it had issued more than 100 questionnaires to attendees of the gatherings that took place during lockdown.

Four weeks ago the invasion of Ukraine knocked partygate off the news agenda and rebellious MPs quietened down. Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, withdrew his letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister, saying “there will be a time and place to debate partygate”. So did the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who said the “situation had changed”.

However, support for Johnson has proven volatile. Tory MPs could turn against the Prime Minister as quickly as they unified behind him. Indeed, whether in the Commons or in speeches, the solemn unity that came over British politics following the invasion has swiftly dissipated. For some Tory MPs, such as the chief rebel Mark Harper, the conclusion of the police investigation and the publication of Sue Gray’s independent investigation into the parties will be the moment to decide whether to oust the Prime Minister.

In any case, this is going to drag on. The police said yesterday they may contact more people as “further information comes to light” and that fixed penalty notices would be issued if there was enough evidence. As one former cabinet member put it to me this morning, this scandal “will come back to haunt the Tory party”.

The other key problem for the Prime Minister, which war in Ukraine has worsened, is the rising cost of living. This was already a major challenge for the government and will only get worse. In April a 54 per cent rise in the energy price cap and an increase in national insurance payments will take effect. This will hit people hard. If the Chancellor doesn’t address these issues in the spring statement tomorrow he is storing up difficulties for Johnson in the months ahead.

In both cases, whether the surging cost of living or the conclusion of the police investigation, the problem for the Prime Minister is that the worst could be yet to come.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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