Long before Partygate, Boris Johnson was known among colleagues for the superpower of survival: the extraordinary ability to shrug off setbacks that led his Eton contemporary, David Cameron, to liken him to a greased piglet.
conspiraciones y acusaciones de traición mientras la policía pone fin al bloqueo, as scores of junior colleagues reeled from the news that just one of the 126 fines levied over Partygate was levied on the prime minister, his supporters were celebrating what appeared to be another great escape.
Shortly after finishing a call with the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday morning, what Johnson had long been telling friends was formally confirmed to No 10: he will receive no further fines, aside from the one he was handed for sharing a birthday cake with colleagues in June 2020.
With a well-timed announcement of structural changes aimed at showing he has got a firmer grip on No 10, and the promise of action on the cost of living, Johnson now hopes to put the parties row behind him.
He was back to his usual bumptious self in Friday’s speech to Welsh Conservadores, rattling through his greatest hits, from claiming he “got the big calls right” on Covid to attacking “Corbynistas” – though to a noticeably muted response from the audience. Más temprano, he had told reporters during a factory visit that he could not “simply magic away” the cost of living crisis.
He still has two more hurdles yet to surmount, sin emabargo: the final report of the formidable Sue Gray, who has already told Johnson that she plans to name him; and an inquiry by the House of Commons privileges committee into whether he misled parliament.
One Boris-sceptic backbencher suggested that while Gray’s report might solidify things in a few MPs’ minds, by setting out in black and white the unedifying details of the parties, it was unlikely to hit home with Johnson or his team.
“I don’t know what Sue Gray’s report is going to say next week,” the MP said. “It won’t be pretty reading, and in any normal world I’m sure it will be devastating, but they’ll no doubt crack on regardless.”
Some senior Tories regard the privileges committee investigation as the more dangerous of the two.
“The privileges committee is the lethal one,” said one former cabinet minister. “The fundamental question is misleading the house, and whether it was deliberate or not. It seems to me very hard to argue that it wasn’t, because we now know he attended a number of parties. Either he’s very stupid or he’s very dishonest.”
sin embargo, the makeup of the committee is still in flux, after Labour’s Chris Bryant recused himself, having already expressed a view about Johnson’s honesty, and with other members on the government payroll expected to be replaced. It could be many months before its findings see the light of day.
Aún, as the parliamentary drama of Brexit subsided only to be overwhelmed by the Covid pandemic, Partygate is drawing to a messy conclusion just as Westminster – and the world outside – are being overwhelmed by the cost of living crisis. Conservative MPs are exasperated at what they see as Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s excessive caution over the devastating impact of 9% annual inflation, which is vividly on show in their constituency surgeries, their inboxes and at local charities and food banks.
Bernard Jenkin, the liaison committee chair – who is neither a wet, nor a rebel – used his intervention in this week’s Queen’s speech debate to set out what he said was a £13.5bn package of measures to tackle the crisis.
Against that background, consumer confidence in the UK has plunged to its lowest level since records began in 1974; and the latest YouGov tracker showed that 71% of voters think the government is managing the economy badly.
Even in the immediate aftermath of Sunak’s spring statement, many were already of the view that “he’ll have to do more”, as one “red waller” put it at the time. Desde entonces, Sunak has moved from insisting that he would wait until the energy price cap is next uprated in October to saying that he “stands ready” to act.
Keir Starmer sought to hammer home the costs of that delay at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, taunting Johnson that he was, “choosing to let people struggle when they don’t need to”.
Labour strategists believe ultimately it will be the parlous state of the economy and the government’s failure to tackle it, that sweeps Johnson out of Downing Street. “We always felt that all the damage that has been done to him over the lies and the deflections and distortions around Partygate was money in the bank, before the real issue, which was always going to be the cost of living,” said one senior party figure.
Both Labour and the LibDems are hoping to take one each of a pair of hard-fought byelections being held next month, en Wakefield and Tiverton.
In the Devon seat vacated by Neil Parish, who resigned after admitting watching porn in the chamber of the House of Commons, the Lib Dems say they are starting to hear some of the same disillusionment among Tory voters they heard in Chesham and Amersham, the Buckinghamshire seat they won last June on a swing of 25 puntos. “The transformation of the Conservative party into Boris Johnson’s own image is unattractive to a lot of people who are lifelong, traditional Conservatives,” said a party source.
Some MPs say they are increasingly picking up this disillusionment even among their own constituency associations, where party stalwarts who once flocked to Johnson’s side are now angry or even ashamed of their party leader. Judging by the gusto with which he addressed the Welsh party faithful on Friday, Johnson believes he can still win the grassroots back – and his MPs appear to have concluded for the moment, that in the absence of a clear alternative, they will stay their hand.
But one veteran Tory insists that with the cost of living crisis worsening by the day, and Downing Street apparently paralysed with indecision, la danger for Johnson is far from over.
“At the moment it’s bloody difficult to see who is going to be the prime minister. That’s a difficulty. But it’s not a final difficulty, because it will get to the point where people will think a gatepost would be better.”