We have reached the beginning of the end of the partygate scandal. The Metropolitan Police have concluded their investigation into the gatherings at Downing Street after issuing 126 fines in total. Boris Johnson did not receive another fine and he will be grateful to have escaped with only one for his surprise birthday party in the cabinet room.
Leadership change necessitates momentum and the gradual nature of partygate has helped Johnson stave off a rebellion from his Tory backbenchers. They’ve always had something else to wait for – whether it’s Sue Gray, the Met, the local elections, the end of recess or another by-election. And that Johnson has avoided a second fine will only push a potential revolt further into the doldrums.
The focus will now shift to the potentially damning Sue Gray report, which is expected to be published next week. Remember that the sneak preview of the report in January found “failures of leadership and judgement” and the “serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time”.
Gray’s update bolstered the feeling among Tory backbenchers that the operation in Downing Street was untethered and chaotic, which in turn allowed Johnson to shift the blame on to his own office. One Tory MP who has been critical of Johnson in the past no longer thinks Johnson will leave, pointing to the changes he’s made to No 10 – “he’s now just got a much tighter No 10 team around him,” they told me. This is comfortable ground for the PM and enables him to reassure his MPs that it won’t happen again. It’s no coincidence that within hours of the Met’s announcement yesterday, Downing Street revealed the reorganisation of the Cabinet Office.
As for Labour, Starmer stuck to his call for the Prime Minister to resign yesterday but he quickly pivoted to the cost-of-living crisis. With their partygate attack lines blunted by the Durham police investigation into beergate, they won’t want the focus to remain on partygate for long.
Partygate has been important for several reasons. It exposed an insouciant attitude towards the rules at the centre of government, the hypocrisy of rule-makers being rule-breakers and Johnson’s proclivity to mislead. Indeed, Johnson’s ratings have taken a potentially irrecoverable hit. But most importantly, it had the power to unseat the Prime Minister; that prospect now looks remote.
[See also: The Conservative Party is lost]