Boris Johnson is going to survive partygate and quite probably lead the Conservatives into the next general election – that is the apparent outcome of today’s long-awaited report by Sue Gray.
The civil servant’s report on Downing Street lockdown parties was sent to No 10 this morning (25 May) at around 10am, publicly released 90 minutes later, debated in the Commons an hour after that, and then scrutinised in a press conference held by Johnson, in which he fended off a dozen questions, at 3:30pm this afternoon.
The key moments came – or rather did not come – in the wake of Johnson’s statement to the Commons. No new Tory MP announced their opposition to his leadership. The rebellion that had been poised to break out in February has, it is now clear, long been quelled.
There can also now be little doubt that the decision by the Metropolitan Police to investigate the Downing Street parties aided, or even saved, the Prime Minister. By delaying Gray’s report and forcing her to split her findings in two, the police’s intervention cooled the heat that was building inside the Conservative Party. It also changed the nature of the questions being asked by MPs in a way that was greatly favourable to Johnson, as I think the following conversation, which I had with one senior MP on Monday night, helps to show.
“I know this will drive some people wild with rage, but I can’t help thinking the PM’s position may actually have strengthened this evening,” the MP told me, after photos appeared of Johnson making a speech at a leaving-do surrounded by bottles of alcohol. Those photos, the MP thought, would not matter much because it had already been revealed that Johnson would not face any further fines from the police.
“The PM said he did not attend a party and abided by the rules,” the MP noted, and now “it seems that the police agree with his position in regards to the event in question. This will provide him with a good defence going forward.” The photos were not as damaging as they may have seemed.
That may not prove true with the public (who, by two to one, want Johnson to resign), but it has proven true among Tory MPs. By not fining Johnson for any events other than a birthday gathering in the cabinet room, for which Rishi Sunak was also fined, the police have allowed Johnson to bat away deeper questions about the culture of rule-breaking he led. Police do not give out fixed-penalty notices for failures of leadership, yet Tory MPs have used the lack of further fines to justify their reluctance to remove Johnson.
“I have seen the photographs and a fixed-penalty notice was not attached to them,” the MP continued. “Whether people like it or not, and I accept many don’t, it seems that the issuing of an FPN is the necessary prerequisite that turns a work gathering into a party.”
In February this MP believed Johnson should resign. Now he believes Johnson has proven to be a unique figure who will inevitably stay. That is only true because Tory MPs have chosen to make it so. The involvement of the police redefined the questions that many MPs asked themselves. Any revelation, no matter how damaging, became irrelevant if it did not lead to a fine.
Partygate, however, was only ever incidentally about conduct that reached the level of law-breaking. At its core, it was about whether Johnson presided over a government that believed, as Keir Starmer put it today, that “it was one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else”.
“Britain’s constitution is fragile,” Starmer argued this afternoon. “It relies on members of this House and the custodians of No 10 behaving responsibly, honestly and in the interests of the British people. When our leaders fall short of those standards, this House has to act.”
His words naturally had little effect on the Conservative benches. The wisdom of the Tory party’s decision to keep Johnson in post is now not likely to be tested until a general election, in which, based on current polls, three in ten Tory MPs will lose their seats and Johnson’s government will lose power.