Last weekend, Boris Johnson was relishing his latest escape after he misled his ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, over the lavish refurbishment of his private Downing Street flat. Johnson had failed to disclose WhatsApp messages in which he asked a Conservative Party donor to pay the six-figure bill, but Geidt let him off with a moderately stiff reprimand.
There had been a low rumble of trouble ahead in a blog post by former adviser Dominic Cummings, which referred to a party Johnson and his wife, Carrie, attended in the Downing Street garden on May 20th, 2020, and was picked up by the Sunday papers. But the story was still vague enough for the prime minister to brush it off and for the public to confuse it with all the other reports of lockdown-breaking gatherings being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
On Monday evening, ITV News revealed that Johnson's principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had sent an email to more than 100 Downing Street staff inviting them to the party.
I suppose it was always going to be brilliant or a complete disaster. Now we know
“Hi all, after what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!” the email said.
On Tuesday morning, Johnson refused to answer questions from reporters about whether he had attended the party, insisting that it was for Gray to establish the facts. Ministers put forward the same line in broadcast interviews and in the House of Commons, where paymaster general Michael Ellis was sent out to face opposition questions on the affair.
Throughout Tuesday, radio phone-in programmes were filled with callers remembering their suffering at the time of the Downing Street party, where lockdown rules only allowed contact with one other person outdoors, 6 feet apart. Under the rules in force at the time, people were unable to visit family members in hospitals and care homes and many said goodbye to dying loved ones on the phone or by video.
DUP MP Jim Shannon broke down in the Commons chamber as he spoke about his mother-in-law dying alone, and Conservative MPs were receiving messages from angry and distressed constituents demanding that Johnson should resign. By the time he stood up at the despatch box for prime minister's questions on Wednesday, Johnson had no choice but to admit that he was at the party and to apologise.
He claimed that he thought the gathering, which had trestle tables laden with bottles and snacks, was a work event rather than a party, and asked MPs to wait for Gray's report before passing judgment. Four Conservative MPs, including the party's Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, called for Johnson's resignation. But most were willing to wait for Gray's report, a position shared by most of the cabinet in tepid tweets.
On Thursday, Johnson went to ground after a family member tested positive for coronavirus, but his closest allies said he was determined to fight off any attempt to remove him from Downing Street. Then, that evening the Daily Telegraph reported that two parties were held in Downing Street on April 16th last year, the night before Queen Elizabeth sat alone at the socially distanced funeral of her husband Prince Philip.
Lockdown rules at the time banned indoor mixing but the paper said Downing Street staff partied inside the building and in the garden until the early hours of the morning. Johnson was not at the parties, which were to say farewell to former director of communications James Slack, now deputy editor of the Sun, and an in-house photographer.
But the details reported, including someone being sent out to a convenience store on the Strand with a suitcase to fill with bottles of wine and a special adviser acting as DJ, are so lurid that they can only strengthen the resolve of those in the Conservative Party who want the prime minister to go.
When the Conservatives met in Manchester for their annual conference last October, Johnson appeared to be unassailable and commentators predicted confidently that he could be in power for a decade. He had just reshuffled his cabinet and his ministers’ subordinate status was underscored at the conference by the relegation of their speeches to a smaller auditorium, leaving the main stage to Johnson alone.
His leader's speech was a classic after-dinner performance full of jokes at cabinet colleagues' expense, a reference to the NHS staff who saved his life when he had coronavirus ("our wonderful nurses pulled my chestnuts out of the Tartarean pit") and daft puns on the Tories' "build back better" slogan. But this demonstration of insouciance at a time when his government was cutting benefits for the poorest and a supply chain squeeze was hurting businesses was also a display of the carelessness that would lead Johnson into trouble in the months that followed.
In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry the following month, he lost his way and started riffing about Peppa Pig World. Unlike the Tory faithful in Manchester, the business leaders in South Shields did not appreciate the joke and the public didn’t like it either, as Conservative canvassers reported that it came up repeatedly as a complaint on the doorsteps.
By then the prime minister was already in trouble with his party in Westminster after telling his MPs to vote to change ethics rules in order to protect former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson from sanction, only to reverse the decision the following day. A large section of the parliamentary party had long been unhappy about coronavirus restrictions and Johnson suffered his biggest backbench revolt on December 14th, when about 100 Conservative MPs voted against the introduction of vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and other large venues.
Paul Goodman, a former Conservative MP who edits the Conservative Home website, says the current parliamentary party is difficult to manage partly because a third of the MPs were first elected in 2019.
"Some of the new Red Wall MPs won what had been very safe Labour seats they must never have thought that they'd win. They didn't expect to be MPs. Furthermore, they're not really, as it were, trained up for it, and they've not had a normal Commons induction because of coronavirus. They've been in their constituencies and not Westminster for much of the last two years," he says.
“They’re busy on WhatsApp groups that the whips have got no access to. So controlling the parliamentary party is very difficult. I think you can think of it less in terms of a left and a right and more as a kind of series of wandering tribes whose paths cross and then diverge again – and whose membership changes. So it’s terribly hard to predict. And the influence of social media on them means they’ve got shorter patience spans than their predecessors even 10 years ago.”
Sue Gray report
Goodman believes the current crisis is grave for Johnson, but he would be surprised if the prime minister leaves Downing Street voluntarily. As a civil servant, Sue Gray will be careful not to be seen to drive an elected politician from office. But even if her report does nothing more than set out the facts surrounding the Downing Street parties, it could be enough to prompt the requisite 54 MPs to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson.
Until this week, Johnson's internal critics were waiting for next May's local elections before using a poor result for the Conservatives to move against him. But Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and elections expert, predicts that MPs will make a decision about the prime minister's future before then.
“My view about power is that it fades attritionally. There is very, very rarely an event that goes in one direction or another, that takes down a leader or builds up a leader. It’s a series of events. And that’s why I think the events are of significance now. Because although you may say, well, the election results are the trigger, there will have been a series of events leading up to the local elections, and that is the final denouement or whatever,” he says.
Recent polls show a consistent Labour lead over the Conservatives, with YouGov this week putting Keir Starmer’s party 10 points ahead. Johnson is more unpopular than ever and six out of 10 voters think he should resign, including four out of 10 of those who voted Conservative in 2019.
One factor that stays the hands of Conservative MPs is uncertainty about who should succeed Johnson and doubts about whether either of the frontrunners – chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss – could hold together the electoral coalition Johnson formed in 2019 to win an 80-seat majority. Sunak has an advantage over Truss, not only because he is more popular with the public but because his role as chancellor has enabled him to woo backbenchers by consulting them about economic and budgetary policy.
“Politics isn’t a science. It’s not a matter of equations and logic. It is a sort of art form – a kind of applied art form in which a politician can suddenly appear and create something that wasn’t there before,” Goodman says.
"Tony Blair did that. At the time, people were ready for something like New Labour. He was able to embody that desire. Thatcher did the same thing for the Conservatives during the 1980s. Sunak has a different sort of appeal. And it could be that voters might think: okay, he looks like a pretty reasonable kind of straightforward guy who to a large extent has made his own way. And obviously he's a much more straightforward act than Boris Johnson. Such a change might work. Or the voters might just decide they've had enough of the Tories."
Few at Westminster expect any move against Johnson before Gray’s report, and he is likely to respond to her findings by sacking some senior Downing Street staff and bringing in new people who will inspire confidence among MPs.
Michael Gove’s long-awaited White Paper on levelling up will include promises of action to improve the wellbeing of towns in many Conservative-held constituencies, and Johnson will hope to survive the cost of living crisis by persuading Sunak to compensate those hardest hit by energy price rises.
If Johnson makes it through it is difficult to see how he will thrive in the months ahead or regain his grip on a parliamentary party with whom he has always had a purely transactional relationship. Conservatives have begun looking beyond Johnson towards their next leader, and after his apology in the Commons on Wednesday one MP was already reflecting on his premiership.
“I suppose it was always going to be brilliant or a complete disaster. Now we know.”