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How dangerous are the partygate photos for Boris Johnson?

The Prime Minister’s popularity has already taken a severe hit – and worse could lie ahead.

By Freddie Hayward

Photos of Boris Johnson raising a glass at a Downing Street party during the second lockdown have been published by ITV News, reigniting the partygate scandal and increasing the likelihood that the Prime Minister will be found to have misled parliament.

The pictures will not immediately threaten Johnson’s position. He will not resign and there seems to be little appetite among his MPs, beyond the usual suspects, to kick off a serious rebellion. Any hopes for a revolt against the PM will probably be pinned to a cabinet resignation, which judging from the performance of Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, on the airwaves this morning seems unlikely. The photos will, however, keep the partygate fire burning and continue to erode voters’ trust in Johnson.

The more perilous prospect for Johnson could be the Commons Privileges Committee investigation into whether he misled parliament. When asked in the Commons chamber whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November 2020 – the night ITV says the photos were taken – Johnson replied: “No, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

The question therefore is, when he stood in front of a table laden with empty wine bottles raising a toast with at least eight people, did Johnson really think the guidance was being followed. Johnson will of course claim that he replied in good faith and by doing so did not intentionally mislead the house. But that line of argument is becoming increasingly untenable. In any case, the committee is yet to choose a chair and will not publish its findings any time soon.

The more damning revelation could be in the Times this morning, which says that the Prime Minister suggested to Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating the Downing Street parties, that she should not publish her report. This would constitute an interference in the investigation and could prove more problematic for the Prime Minister than the photos. It is worth remembering that Johnson’s position as Gray’s boss and her role as a civil servant means the investigation was never going to be fully independent. The fact that Johnson can initiate a meeting with the person deciding his political fate, allegedly ask her to drop her report and then have his cabinet colleagues argue that it was merely a meeting about timings only illustrates that.

It’s important to remember that Johnson’s popularity has already taken a severe hit over partygate. The question now is how bad will it get. Gray’s report is said to contain cutting criticism of the leadership in No 10 and more photos ripe for newspaper splashes. When it’s published – which could be as soon as today – the pressure on the Prime Minister will only build. Either way, the privileges committee findings and questions over Johnson’s interference into the investigation mean that the problems for the Prime Minister will persist far beyond this week.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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