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9 December 2021

Could the Downing Street party unravel Boris Johnson’s political career?

The old mantra recited by his followers – “he’s a winner” – is now heard less and less, and the embarrassment the Prime Minister has become has now penetrated well beyond the political class.

By Simon Heffer

About a month ago, at the time of the Owen Paterson debacle, a senior Tory MP complained to me about the “amateurish” way in which government was being conducted, with new evidence of mistakes, misjudgements and chaos emerging about once a week.  

Such evidence is now coming in two or three times a week. And it is nothing to do with amateurishness: it is the product of a Prime Minister who has a strategy of not telling the truth, a strategy he has pursued ruthlessly because he believes the public does not care.  

On the occasions it does care, he imagines it has a short memory. The facts appeared to be with him on this: until the last few weeks, beginning with the Paterson case, he was able to get away with improprieties and dishonesty that would have brought some governments down. 

Boris Johnson may have lied about not knowing anything about a party in Downing Street last Christmas that violated the rules then in place about lockdown, social distancing and assemblies of people outside their bubbles. Indeed, it is now rumoured there were potentially seven such parties in Downing Street. For him to have had no inkling of any of them beggars belief.  

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These were gatherings of predominately young people whose jobs would have been highly pressurised at the best of the times, but who were wilting under the strain during the crisis that then confronted the nation. Many people in many walks of life across the country were suffering immense pressure too, for all sorts of reasons – family members were sick with or dying from Covid, family and friends who needed support could not legally be given it, and many businesses were heading towards bankruptcy despite the best efforts of the furlough scheme. Hardly any of these people let off steam by illegally partying, and those who did often found themselves charged and fined, the fines often going into four figures. 

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[See also: More than 100,000 fines for breaking lockdown restrictions have been handed out]

One of the many aspects of the Downing Street case that seems particularly implausible is that the Metropolitan Police claim there is insufficient evidence to prosecute those responsible. The shadow cabinet office minister Fleur Anderson has asked Michael Ellis, the Paymaster General, whether the promised investigation into three Downing Street parties by the cabinet secretary Simon Case is “serious”. Ellis said any evidence of wrongdoing would be reported to the police. We shall see. 

What we are reminded of by this almost ludicrous act of contempt for the public is that leadership is fundamentally moral. In a democracy, leadership only possesses authority and commands respect because of the moral standing of the leader. The moral standing of the present leader of the Conservative Party and of Her Majesty’s government is microscopically low, if not non-existent.  

The Paterson case established how Johnson was at ease with a climate in the regulation of MPs’ affairs that not only ensured there was one rule for him and his friends, and another for those deemed to be in a less privileged category, but one in which Paterson’s troubles (which included the suicide of his wife) could be exploited to change the entire regulatory regime. It is still not clear who exactly paid for the wallpaper in the refurbished Downing Street, at a reputed £850 a roll – an uncommon sight, one suspects, in the average Red Wall seat – but the Electoral Commission has just fined the Tory party £17,800 for improprieties in the use of some of its money (source, again, uncertain) to pay the decorators’ bill. 

Johnson’s support among the people who matter – his parliamentary colleagues, who have it within their power to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee to demand a leadership challenge – has started to crumble. There is mounting anger about the new Covid restrictions, which many Tory MPs believe were announced only to distract attention from the parties furore. Even Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, has said that if Johnson turns out to have lied about his knowledge of the parties, he would have to resign.  

Johnson’s popularity has fallen even more sharply at the grassroots and among the general public, which has had an inevitable knock-on effect among MPs. A snap Opinium poll saying 53 per cent of the public thought Johnson ought to resign will make him do little more than shrug his shoulders, such is his arrogance and shamelessness. It will, however, deeply rattle some of his colleagues. If enough of them stop seeing him as an asset and instead as a liability, that is when he is doomed, and the end would likely come quickly. He is largely friendless, and almost all support for him is entirely transactional.

A lie about the Downing Street party could well turn out to be a lie too far for a man who so far has given every indication that he could not care less whether he tells the truth or not, or whether others spot he is a liar. It is not that he can’t take anything seriously: it is that he won’t take anything seriously. Taking things seriously – reading briefs, absorbing oral briefings, treating the opinions of others with respect and, armed with facts, reflecting carefully on them before taking a decision – is simply not how he does things. It would be a waste of his time when he could be doing something more important to him – dealing with his baroque personal life, for example, and considering his post-Downing Street earnings strategy, especially now he has just had yet another child. 

Those who wish him well have suggested he get some older and wiser heads in Downing Street to advise him, rather than the overgrown teenagers and yes-men who make up most of the cadre. But that would make no difference, as he wouldn’t listen to them: he is too detached, too lacking in commitment, too careless and too arrogant. And when he brings in someone at cabinet level who, unlike most of the rest of them, is sufficiently talented that he risks showing Johnson up, that soon turns ugly. Sajid Javid, whose record in the private sector suggests he is definitely a grown-up, has said he refused to do TV interviews on the morning after the Downing Street party video was leaked, as it was impossible for him to defend it. In every job Johnson has done, the people of ability around him have ended up despising him: Downing Street is, it seems, little different. 

Will Johnson go if he is proved to have lied about the party? Proving it will not be easy. But he has little visible means of support now. The old mantra recited by his followers for most of the past two years – “he’s a winner” – is now heard less and less, and with even Ant and Dec making jokes about his probity on prime time television the national embarrassment Johnson has become has penetrated well beyond what we might term the political class. His political death, like that of Randolph Churchill in the memorable phrase of Lord Rosebery, is coming by inches, in public. It is incremental, as one failure after another chips away at his parliamentary support.  

If the timing of his downfall remains unpredictable, the thing one can say with reasonable certainty is that when it comes it will come as if from nowhere, and the end will be sudden and unlamented. 

[See also: Boris Johnson’s attempt to shift the blame has only made him look worse]