Parliament has been consumed by machinations over the Boris Johnson, Partygate and an early General Election, says Paul Montague-Smith, senior counsel – public affairs at MRM.
Whether the Prime Minister will survive remains the obsession of Westminster. Having received a fixed penalty notice from the police for not avoiding a brief, impromptu birthday celebration, Tory MPs expect more fines to come for other more serious offences. Many are again exasperated and increasingly unwilling to defend the Prime Minister to their constituents.
And, once again, they have been left frustrated at the government’s handling of the issue in Parliament, first by organising a three-line whip against Labour’s motion to refer the issue to a committee, then putting forward a delaying amendment, only at the last minute to cave in and give their MPs a free vote.
The Committee of Privileges – one of the oldest committees in the Commons – will now investigate whether the Prime Minister deliberately misled the House about non-work events in Downing Street and other departments. It requires a high burden of proof. If it finds that he did, he could be found to be in contempt of Parliament. The Commons as a whole would ultimately vote on the issue.
If the normal rules of UK politics apply, losing such a vote would force the PM’s resignation. Even were he to win, a leadership contest could follow because of the evidence that emerges. While the seven strong committee has a Tory majority – with three effectively members of the government payroll vote – the government won’t be banking on anything.
Members are duty bound to be impartial and come to a consensus view. There is, though, a fair chance that they won’t be able to agree a unanimous report and might split down party lines.
That would be a pretty good outcome from Johnson’s perspective. In any event, the investigation is likely to run until the Autumn. Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into the events should be published as soon as the police action is finished. While it is thought to be highly critical of the culture and leadership in Downing Street, it isn’t expected to get into whether MPs have been misled.
The new inquiry therefore gives Conservative MPs another reason to hold off withdrawing their support from the PM for the time being.
A recent survey by ConservativeHome shows that while over a third (35%) of Conservative Party members think the Prime Minister should resign now, well over a half (58%) still don’t. Almost exactly the same proportion think ‘partygate’ is being overblown by the media and is not important to most voters.
There is growing talk in Westminster, though, that if a change is going to happen, it needs to be sooner rather than later. There’s some chat about a possible 2023 election – likely designed to concentrate minds on both sides of the argument.
While Johnson has shown himself to be a high-stakes political gambler, it would be a brave PM to call an election while a spike in the cost-of-living is still being felt. Recent YouGov poll shows the public thinks the government is handling almost every major issue badly. That will take time to turn around.
Even if this Parliament goes the distance, we are now closer to the next general election than we are to the last. Labour is playing down expectations for the upcoming local elections as the party performed well when this tranche of seats were last contested.
Last month I thought the likelihood of a protracted war in Ukraine meant Johnson was out of imminent danger. Given how things have developed over the last four weeks, I’m less sure.
If the Conservatives take a hammering at the ballot box on 5 May, losing large numbers of council seats to Labour in the north as well as totemic councils like Westminster or Wandsworth, enough MPs may reluctantly conclude that change is needed now – however happy Vladmir Putin might be at the prospect.
The problem they would have though, with no obvious successors, is that it would be a big leap into the dark, involving a divisive fight between different factions over the future direction of the party.
On balance, with Labour not showing the consistent double-digit poll leads it really needs and should perhaps have, I suspect Johnson will survive at least until the Autumn.