Denis Staunton: Boris Johnson’s future being measured in days rather than weeks

Analysis: All goes wrong for British PM as he explains attendance at lockdown-breaking party

Boris Johnson had few options going into prime minister's questions in the House of Commons today and when he started speaking, he appeared to have chosen the best of them by apologising for attending a lockdown-breaking party in the Downing Street garden almost two years ago.

He acknowledged the anguish people were going through because of strict lockdown rules in force at the time and the rage they felt towards him and his government for breaking them.

Then he started explaining his actions and it all began to go wrong.

"Number 10 is a big department with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus. And when I went into that garden, just after six on the 20th of May 2020 to thank groups and staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later, to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event. But Mr Speaker, with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them," he said.


The benches behind the prime minister were full but Conservative MPs were still and expressionless as he spoke, perhaps in disbelief that this was the best he could come up with. Labour leader Keir Starmer made Johnson squirm with a succession of short, punchy questions, pointing across the despatch box at "the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road".

A day earlier the DUP's Jim Shannon, one of the most well-liked MPs at Westminster, broke down as he spoke about his mother-in-law dying alone during the lockdown.

“He was following the rules whilst the prime minister was partying in Downing Street,” Starmer said.

As Conservative MPs calculated whether Johnson’s line was one they could take back to their constituents or defend on local radio, the talk around Westminster was not about whether the prime minister would go but when. Until this week, the conventional wisdom held that there would be no move against him until after next May’s local elections, but after PMQs his future was being measured in days rather than weeks.

The prime minister's fate depends on the outcome of an investigation into the various Downing Street parties by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant with a fearsome reputation who ran a pub in Newry in the 1980s. As head of propriety and ethics at the cabinet office under David Cameron and Theresa May she was not known for giving the subject of her inquiries an easy ride and she has no reason to do so for Johnson.