(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Boris Johnson is the Harry Houdini of British politics, blustering his way through scandals about fibs, finances and a colorful love life that would have sunk most other British politicians.
On Wednesday, he embarked upon his most dangerous feat of escapology yet. The prime minister is accused of whooping it up in a garden party at his No. 10 Downing Street office while the rest of the country was locked down for the common good to halt the Covid pandemic.
“Is this for real?” replied one Downing Street staff member to a party invitation from Johnson’s private secretary Martin Reynolds during the first and strictest U.K. lockdown. But the invitation wasn’t a spoof. Up to 100 “guests” were asked to “bring your own booze” to the No. 10 garden on May 20, 2020.
Most of those invited had the good sense to stay away, but more than 30 others turned up, bottles to hand. Johnson by his own admission attended for 25 minutes. He’d thought it was a work event, he explained to an incredulous House of Commons on Wednesday, adding that he had only taken a turn around the garden to thank his hard-working officials.
This week Johnson should have been celebrating the success of his gamble to keep the country open during the outbreak of the omicron variant. Cases have halved, the booster vaccine roll-out has been a success, and remaining social restrictions are set to be lifted before the end of the month, ahead of continental Europe.
Instead, the prime minister is fighting for his political life — and he has no one to blame for his predicament but himself.
The rules were clear. Indeed, a Cabinet minister had outlined them to the nation’s media an hour before the party started: Individuals were allowed to meet just one person from outside their household in the open air. Ten days before, Johnson had also urged people on television, with a Union flag in the background, to “observe the rules.” Elsewhere in England, millions observed the grim rituals of lockdown, isolating at home and forgoing visits to parents, sick relatives and other loved ones. Funerals and marriages were restricted to six people.
Everyone hates a leader who operates according to, “Do as I say, not as I do.” The charge that Covid social distancing rules only apply to the little people has already proved terminal to several members of Johnson’s government.
The last Health Secretary was forced to resign when he was caught on camera in a clinch with a political adviser who wasn’t his wife. Johnson’s media spokeswoman had to resign, too, because she was filmed laughing about No. 10 “parties” recently. The prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, also broke lockdown restrictions. Mysteriously, he hung on to his job for another six months before Johnson sacked him.
The likely reason for that reprieve perhaps becomes clearer now. Cummings had the details of Johnson’s attendance at the Downing Street party. We know that because a vengeful Cummings leaked the information on his blog last week. Emails from other partygoers that confirmed the story were then passed by an unknown source to a television news program.
With his back to the wall, the prime minister took the only course open to him in the House of Commons this week — he played for time and made a partial apology. Johnson pleaded with MPs to wait for an official investigation into the affair. He confessed he had made a brief appearance at what he believed was a work event. If Johnson admitted outright that he had attended the party and apologized, that would have been tantamount to saying that he had lied to the Commons last year when he said that he knew nothing about any parties at No. 10 and was “furious” to hear about them. It might also have provoked a police investigation into his rule-breaking.
But his response was feeble stuff — a lawyer’s answer. Labour leader Keir Starmer told Johnson that the country thought he was a liar. But the PM is adamant that this was an accidental mess, not a defiance of regulations and has told his allies that he intends to fight on.
Now Johnson’s fate depends on three actors who hold the keys to his survival or fall.
First up is the punctilious civil servant Sue Gray, who is leading the ethics inquiry into “Partygate” — Whitehall gatherings in breach of social-distancing rules. Gray has already taken the scalps of three Cabinet ministers in previous investigations, but she may be loath to bring down a prime minister by calling him out directly. In any case, how can anyone definitively prove what the prime minister thought? However, if new evidence comes to light that Johnson knew about the party all along — and watch out for his nemesis Cummings — he is finished.
Second, there are Johnson’s Conservative MPs. Few of them have much personal affection for their leader, but they respect his proven track record of winning elections and saving their seats. But several allies of his predecessor and arch-enemy, Theresa May, have made public calls for his resignation. Much of the Tory party in devolved Scotland — where the prime minister is a toxic figure — would like him to go too, but the right wing of his party (and the Tory press) won’t want to dispense with his services if they think he’ll bend to their will.
Finally, there are the voters. If the polls turn irrevocably against him, Johnson is unlikely to survive as prime minister. The Conservative party trailed Labour by 10points on Wednesday, its worst performance for nine years. It would take 54 letters from Tory MPs to the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers to trigger a leadership election.
The political battle to come will be terrible. But Johnson will hope his half-apology has turned down the heat. Matthew Goodwin, a polling analyst who correctly predicted his last overwhelming victory adds, “It would break precedent to throw over a prime minister in his first term with the biggest Tory majority for more than 30 years.”
The prime minister may have outlived his political purpose — Brexit is done — but you can’t write him off just yet.
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Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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