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13 January 2022

It’s hard for Rishi Sunak to distance himself from lockdown-breaking parties given he lived next door to No 10

Boris Johnson’s potential successors could also fall over “partygate”.

By Stephen Bush

How much trouble is Boris Johnson in? Back-bench Conservatives, particularly in marginal seats, are deeply unimpressed by the Prime Minister’s half-hearted apology (in which he claimed that he had believed that the party he attended in Downing Street’s garden on 20 May 2020 was a “work event”). Departed minister David Frost has used his first big interview since his resignation to criticise the government’s approach to the pandemic and to reaching net zero. Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has called on the Prime Minister to resign. And looming over everything is Sue Gray’s investigation into lockdown-breaking parties in government.

But one underrated asset the PM has is this: if Johnson does have to resign over lockdown-breaking parties, that raises awkward questions for many of his would-be successors. Rishi Sunak, the bookmakers’ favourite, literally lived next door. Can any departmental minister say for sure that no one in their employ – no special adviser, no civil service official – didn’t attend one of these parties? Or that they had a party of their own? As one back-bench MP put it to me last night, if Boris Johnson has to go as a direct result of “partygate”, “the only safe harbour” for MPs who want to put the row behind them is someone out of government, like Jeremy Hunt.

Now there are, of course, a number of Conservative MPs who do want Jeremy Hunt to be Conservative leader. And there are a number of Conservative MPs who want Liz Truss, and believe that she will be able to use her foreign policy briefs as a way to elide any wider questions about parties on Whitehall. And there are supporters of Sunak who think that, however awkward his physical proximity to Boris Johnson may be, his political distance would allow him to walk off any difficult questions about what was going on next door.

But what there isn’t is a critical mass of MPs who definitely think that their interests are best served by Boris Johnson going now – after all, as one MP points out, while a bad set of local elections are a problem for Conservative councillors, they aren’t a problem for Conservative MPs. So Boris Johnson has a good shot of surviving this row – at least until a cleaner pretext can be found by his would-be successors. So while Johnson’s premiership may well be in its terminal phase, I wouldn’t rule out that his government is a lot longer in the dying than we might expect.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s reluctant support of the Prime Minister shows his naked ambition]

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