Editor’s Note: Rosa Prince is the editor of The House magazine. She is the former assistant political editor of the Daily Telegraph, and author of books ‘Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister’ and ‘Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup.’ The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
If British politics has become increasingly divided in recent years, there is perhaps one thing everyone can agree on: Boris Johnson certainly knows how to throw a party.
But as the official report was published into allegations of potentially illegal gatherings at 10 Downing Street during the height of the pandemic, when a strict national lockdown was rigorously enforced, it was clear the hangover was beginning to settle in.
Johnson may have hoped the heavily redacted report by senior civil servant Sue Gray would bring to heal the hounds yapping at his heels; if he did, it swiftly became apparent as he delivered a statement in the House of Commons on her findings on Monday that he was sorely mistaken.
The dogs continued to bay, the huntsmen to sound their horns, but the moment of greatest danger for Johnson’s political career has yet to pass. This wily fox of a Prime Minister looked no closer to getting away unscathed, nor did he appear hopelessly concerned.
In a wild two hours in Westminster which saw one party leader thrown out of the chamber for calling the PM a liar, and with several MPs in tears as they described bereavements during the pandemic, Johnson reached repeatedly for the one word he used always to avoid – “sorry” – to attempt to appease his critics.
It didn’t get him very far. The Gray report into events at Number 10 was always going to be something of a disappointment following the extraordinary intervention by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, who last week said Gray’s report could not encompass key details now under investigation by the police.
In the “Alice in Wonderland” world of Parliament, that was seen as something of a win for Johnson, at least buying him a few more months to try to move the political narrative forward.
Gray, a respected civil servant with a no-nonsense reputation, has been largely stymied by the simultaneous investigation by the Met; a clue to her potential (and understandable) frustration could be found in the fact that she labeled her findings an “update” rather than a full report.
Stripped of any detail which might prejudice the criminal inquiry, the report’s interim conclusions – that gatherings had been inappropriate, that a drinking culture existed at No 10, that the place lacked leadership – surprised no one.
But any hope by Johnson that by apologizing and pledging to reform the operation in Downing Street – where the lines between the Premier’s residence and workplace have long been blurred – and he could move on was dashed when the extent of the dissatisfaction on his own Conservative benches became clear.
With a public torn between disgust at the disconnect between their own sacrifices during lockdown and the seemingly endless stream of alcohol-fueled parties at the heart of government, and a sense of unrest at the focus on arguably trivial matters compared to the looming crises elsewhere (Russia and Ukraine, rising energy costs, the pandemic itself, for once the Prime Minister’s attention was not on how his statement would be received by voters.
Instead, the only audience that mattered was 359 Tory MPs who hold the PM’s fate in their hands. They alone hold the constitutional ability to dislodge a sitting premier; whether they are ready to wield their power is yet unclear.
Acknowledging this dynamic, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s response to Johnson’s statement also played not to the electorate but the Conservative benches. Calling their leader “without shame,” he turned to the MPs sitting behind him and urged of them: “It is only they that can end this farce. The eyes of the country are upon them.”
And then the House watched and waited – and was not disappointed with the drama as the Conservative MPs questioned Johnson’s leadership. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, tall, regal and dignified, asked whether Johnson had not understood the Covid rules – or whether he had willfully ignored him.
Another senior Conservative, Andrew Mitchell, said that after 30 years in politics, he could no longer support Johnson’s leadership.
From the most senior MPs in the Commons to the most junior; Aaron Bell, elected only in 2019, captivated the House with an account of his grandmother’s funeral – having driven for three hours to attend the ceremony alongside only 10 mourners, he could not hug his bereaved parents or siblings, or even go back to the house for a cup of tea with the family, but was forced to immediately make the long drive home. All this as in Downing Street, officials had cheese and wine parties and sang happy birthday to the Prime Minister.
But if their words were damning, Tory MPs did not sit in the same awful silence – as opposed to the usual cheers and stomps of support that typically accompany a PM’s address – as they had as at Prime Minister’s Question Time three weeks ago, when the extent of the drinking culture in Number 10 during lockdown first became apparent and it appeared the PM might not survive the week.
And as the session played out, it seemed there were still enough loyal backbenchers prepared to defend Johnson for him to cling to some hope that he may yet wiggle out of this – his most serious crisis to date – just as he has before in so many lesser turmoils in both his private and public life.
Yet danger continues to lurk for the Prime Minister. Under the Conservative Party’s rules, it takes 15% of the parliamentary party – currently 54 MPs – to trigger a leadership contest, a line that could be crossed at any moment.
If the bar is not reached this week, who is to tell whether wavering Tory MPs will act once the police report comes in.
For any other MP, as one Conservative told me privately, just the fact that they were under investigation by the police would be an awful, shameful offense. For many, this is unquestionably a resigning matter. Only Boris Johnson could take such unpromising material and turn it to his advantage.