Boris Johnson has survived partygate for now, writes Paul Montague-Smith, but Tory MPs could still come for him if by-elections show a LibDem resurgence.
Sue Gray’s report into ‘partygate’ revealed a culture in Downing Street that was way out of kilter with what most people would expect from their government – and that’s in normal times, without the rules that the vast majority of people abided by during the pandemic.
For Tory MPs reflecting on whether to back or sack Boris, the case for the prosecution is as follows:
- The culture and behaviour of staff was unacceptable and was allowed by those at the top
- Even the PM briefly attending leaving drinks was against the rules, despite what the Met Police decided
- Senior civil servants clearly knew what they were doing was wrong
- The PM must have known too, and has misled the Commons and should fall on his sword.
The case for the defence? Sue Gray’s report and the police investigation confirm the PM was doing his job and acted within the law, except for when he was ambushed by others on his birthday, which the photos suggest is the least party-like birthday party ever.
He wasn’t aware of how other events he attended developed, had only inadvertently misled the House based on what he’d been told by others, has apologised and has shaken up the Downing Street operation in line with Sue Gray’s recommendations.
Westminster politics is fuelled by alcohol – relationships built, gossip exchanged, deals done, all with copious amounts of subsidised booze – so I’m not surprised about the findings.
I’ve worked in political consultancies where it was a high pressure, work hard, play hard culture and where getting drunk with your colleagues helped everyone decompress and cement an esprit de corps.
But the tone deafness of what was allowed to go on, given the context and rules at the time, is impossible to defend and it’s no surprise that people are furious.
The PM survived his statement to the Commons on the report without unexpected new attacks from his own side. It was, though, striking how few of his backbenchers were there to support him and how few rose to spoke in his defence.
So far, though, only a handful of new MPs have added their voices for him to go, with 24 (at the time of publication) of the 54 needed for a leadership contest being on record as having no confidence him. The real number will be higher, but how close we are to the triggering of a contest is only known by the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee.
Rishi Sunak might have helped save the PM’s bacon for now and not for the first time. He of course decided to support Boris when the partygate scandal peaked, knowing that in the Tory party the person who sticks the knife in doesn’t usually ascend to the throne. Then the revelations around his wife’s tax affairs put him out of the running for the foreseeable future anyway.
Now he’s back with his big money-splurging bazooka, straight after the Gray report, with an extra £15bn on top of the £22bn already announced to mitigate the cost of living crisis, funded by an Energy Profits Levy (aka a windfall tax) and more borrowing.
The package – this time focused squarely on the poorest – will placate the growing number of Tory MPs who were demanding more be done to protect their constituents from the crisis heading towards them.
But it has again angered those, including Cabinet ministers, who argued against the idea and think cutting tax is the best way to go. Despite the levy being configured in a way that should protect investment by energy firms, they feel they’ve been unnecessarily marched up and down the hill yet again and appear to be dancing to Labour’s tune.
The next danger point for the PM is 23 June when the Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-elections take place. Labour should comfortably win Wakefield, not least because of the nature of previous MP’s crime. If the LibDems come from third to take Tiverton & Honiton, Tory MPs where LibDems are in second place could become spooked enough to submit a letter of no confidence.
The Privileges Committee also now starts its investigation into whether the PM intentionally misled the Commons. It will call key witnesses to give evidence. One should be the PM’s former principal private secretary, whose emails show he knew the social events he and others organised were dodgy.
He’s been moved to the Foreign Office and is rumoured to be destined for an ambassadorial role. People will be wondering why he hasn’t been dismissed. If he or others have evidence or provide testimony that the PM knew about or sanctioned the events, the game would surely be up.