Last night (10 January) ITV broke the news that, in May 2020, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds invited more than 100 No 10 staff to a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street gardens. Around 40 people are thought to have attended, including the PM and his wife, in – well – quite a clear breach of social distancing rules.
This should, in any sane world, be it for Boris Johnson: in May 2020, the public was two months into not seeing family, friends or partners unless they’d had the foresight to live in the same house, and stories abounded of people watching elderly relatives die, alone, over Zoom. Yet our Prime Minister was cheerfully boozing it up with several dozen of his closest staff. He was taking the piss.
The laws of physics state that an object will keep moving in a particular way until some force interacts with it. Politics is not physics, but it is worth remembering in the case of the man who has failed to be removed as Prime Minister, throughout two-and-a-half years of mess-ups and scandal.
And the laws of decency apply to politics even less than the laws of physics. So for all the comments along the lines of “I don’t see how he can survive this”, it’s worth asking why he can’t. You or I may wake up at 3am, mortified by that embarrassing thing we said at a party when we were 17, but scientists have yet to find any evidence of Boris Johnson’s sense of shame. He has survived plenty of scandals that would have destroyed more emotionally functional politicians through his one weird trick of: Just. Not. Resigning. If you sit tight for long enough, it turns out, the news moves on.
Perhaps this time will be different. There are hefty majorities who do seem to think that the rules were broken and the PM can’t be trusted – and the rolling scandal has coincided with the first period of Labour polling leads in years. (Opinium’s Chris Curtis put together a nice round-up of the polling here.) There is a plausible chain of causality that runs through bad local election results and furious emails in MPs’ inboxes, to back-bench frustration and a tap on the shoulder from the 1922 Committee. Conservative MPs do not have a history of being overly sentimentally attached to their leaders, even the ones they supported for reasons other than their ability to win elections. It’s possible that this is the end of the line.
But there are a lot of links in that chain, and a lot of things that could prevent it playing out. Perhaps Johnson will successfully pass blame on to his civil servants (again). Perhaps the media or the voters will get bored and attention will move on. Perhaps, in the absence of an alternative leader with better polling, MPs will decide to sit tight (the cleanest hands currently belong to Rishi Sunak, and if his reputation survives the spring I’ll be amazed). Or perhaps, just perhaps, Keir Starmer’s Labour will find some way of messing it up.
Everything we know suggests the public is rightly furious about this scandal. But it’s not the public that has the power to force the Prime Minister out, it’s the parliamentary Conservative Party. Until MPs decide to move, it’s not entirely clear how anything changes.