Is it the end for Boris Johnson?

After another dreadful week for Boris Johnson that was dominated by news of yet more rule-breaking parties at No 10, the comedian Andy Zaltzman opened BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz at 6.30pm on Friday by announcing his two teams. One he named “team apologise” and the other “team pack of lies”.

Zaltzman added: “This show is best listened to when not at work. If you are unsure whether you are at work or not at work, please check whether anyone you normally work with has turned up with a bottle of wine and is getting hammered.”

What followed was 20 minutes of relentless ridicule of the prime minister for attempting to pass off a lockdown-busting bring-your-own-booze gathering for dozens of people in the garden of No 10 in May 2020 (which he attended with his wife), as a work event.

Half an hour later, over on the Sky Sports’s Friday Night Football show, the pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were also getting in on the act.

Asked about the rivalry between Brighton and Hove Albion and Crystal Palace, who were about to face each other on the pitch, Neville replied with a straight face that such derby games often seemed like a “massive party”.

His somewhat awkward – though clearly prepared – allusion to political events in answer to a question about football allowed Carragher to carry on the gag. “This is not a party tonight. This is about work,” he said. “They’ve got to know the difference between work and a party,” he said.

Across the media Johnson, the politician who used to make the jokes on shows like Have I Got News for You, has become a national laughing stock, and everyone is at it.

Johnson’s descent is a story with mass appeal. The popular ITV show This Morning, which normally steers well clear of politics, cut straight to prime minister’s questions live on Wednesday to hear Johnson’s apology-cum-justification for attending the May 2020 party himself, such was the level of interest.

The dizzying speed of the revelations, denials, admissions and apologies has left Tory MPs struggling to keep up. By Thursday evening many were already dreading returning to their constituencies.

They knew that “partygate” was damaging because Johnson had lost respect. But they were also aware that it was much more serious than that for every Conservative: the stories about rule-breaking get-togethers had caused deep anger and – to thousands who had lost relatives or friends to Covid-19 – intense anguish and pain. The mix was, potentially, politically lethal for the entire Conservative party.

To their horror, however, there was even worse to come that evening. A report would surface in the Daily Telegraph saying that No 10 staff had also held two bashes in Downing Street, lasting into the early hours, the night before Prince Philip’s funeral last April.

“When I heard that I thought when does it end? Does it ever?” said one former Conservative minister. “Just when you thought the latest awful episode might be behind us we are back on the same routine of trying to hide the truth.”

When they had to confront their constituents and their inboxes on Friday, Conservative MPs were shaken by the backlash. “The fact that they had parties before the royal funeral was what really set a lot of people off,” said one southern Tory MP.

“That is when my emails really flooded in. Many were from people I don’t normally hear from. One of my colleagues said he had 500 emails overnight and most were from constituents he had not heard from until now.”

Another Tory, from a northern seat, said his local councillors, who had been Johnson supporters, had summoned him to a meeting on Friday to express their disgust. The Tory councillors had voted for Johnson to be leader and had voted for Brexit. But they had turned against him. “I can accurately say my councillors are very pissed off,” he said. “They had been confident before all of this that we would hold our local councils in the May local elections. Now they think we will lose because of his behaviour. They want Boris out. They are furious.”

Peter Aldous, Tory MP for Waveney in Suffolk, many of whose constituents had been loyal Johnson and Brexit supporters, said the feedback from his constituents was “very largely very negative”.

Where 10 days before Aldous had been ready to give Johnson another chance, he was now close to concluding that he should go. He would wait until the publication of a report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray before finally deciding. “As matters stand at the moment my view is that it would be best if he stood down, but I think we should wait for the report. An awful lot of people who voted Brexit do feel very badly let down.”

Another Tory MP said that if working-class Brexit supporters – who had largely stayed loyal to Johnson over recent months – were now deserting, the PM was in real trouble. “Quite of few of my colleagues still take the view that Boris won us the election and delivered Brexit so they say we should stay loyal. But if that coalition cracks among 2019 voters, those MPs could start to crack too.”

This weekend most Tory MPs and many Conservative ministers say they, too, will wait for the Gray report before they decide whether to call for Johnson to go. So far only a handful of backbenchers have done so.

But privately many admit they are holding off more because they believe they have to be seen to be observing “due process” than because they believe he should continue at No 10. “I think we do have to wait for the process to run its course, but I am clear he should go,” said one former minister.

Gray, a former head of ethics in the civil service who was appointed by Johnson to establish the facts about the Downing Street parties, is expected to conclude her report and publish it towards the end of next week.

While her job is to establish what happened and not to suggest punishment or remedies for individuals, the word in Whitehall is that she will not hold back in her judgments.

One source who knows Gray well and has been in regular contact with her over recent days says suggestions that she will preside over any form of whitewash will prove wide of the mark.

Rather, he expects her to make it clear that things went very wrong in No 10, that the government’s own Covid guidance was not adhered to, and that those responsible must take the blame. Gray, the source said, was dismayed last week at hearing of more parties – ones that she not been informed of but had heard of via the media.

“She has very high standards. She is ruthless. She is disappointed in what she is finding but personally she is robust,” the source said.

“She will give it both barrels to whoever deserves it, whether that is a special adviser or civil servant or the politicos. We will get the unvarnished truth. If she sees direct responsibility, she will be clear. That is why I think this is going to be uncomfortable for everyone. Everyone is going to take their share of the blame.”

He added: “My sense is that there won’t be one killer moment with a video of the prime minister dancing or whatever. It will be more about what a shitshow that whole operation is and what it has led to, how they felt that they could do this sort of stuff when they were running the country.”

There are worries among backbenchers, however, that the period immediately after Gray publishes will be messy and protracted, and that Johnson and No 10 will try to spin anything short of a conclusion of law-breaking, as a triumph.

The Tory MP and former health minister Dr Dan Poulter said that, with this in mind, he would like Gray to refer the results of her inquiry on to an independent authority which could advise on what action should be taken.

“We are in the extremely unusual situation where the prime minister is both under investigation and the arbitrator of that same investigation,” he said. “The prime minister would be poorly served in judging the final report himself, as it is very important for him and the high office he holds that the outcome of this process has credibility and cannot be brought into question.

“It would be better for Sue Gray to hand the completed investigation to either Lord Geidt or a panel of senior constitutional judges to allow them to pass judgement and make appropriate recommendations.”

But there is another school of thought developing both in the Tory party and in Whitehall, which is that it might all be over for Johnson before he even gets to see the Gray report: that events could spiral out of control for him very fast, perhaps within days.

The way the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, called for Johnson to go last week, and was backed by Tory MSPs – only for cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to dismiss Ross as a “lightweight” – has triggered doubts about whether the party can hang together for much longer, with ministers straining to defend Johnson, and attracting more ridicule in the process.

“You cannot have this in a unionist party,” said a senior Tory adviser. “What is Rees-Mogg doing for the sake of trying to save Boris Johnson? It is complete farce.”

Government is paralysed and the cracks are widening. Every movement of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the favourite to succeed Johnson, and foreign secretary Liz Truss are being picked over for what they reveal about their leadership ambitions.

Today’s Opinium poll for the Observer is devastating for Johnson and the Tories. The least surprising finding is that Labour is now 10 points ahead of the Conservatives, having enjoyed comfortable leads just three months ago. More striking is that Johnson’s personal ratings have nosedived to levels equivalent to those of Theresa May at her lowest point.

Just 22% of people approve of the job Johnson is doing as prime minister. And 48% of Conservative voters at the 2019 election now say he should resign. Nor can he rely on Brexit supporters – 46% of Tory Leave voters say he should quit. Sonia Khan, a former Tory special adviser said: “For many Conservative MPs, the risk of ‘partygate’ has only felt real this week. MPs tell me they’ve had emails in their hundreds from voters in the most marginal parts of their constituencies telling them they will never vote Conservative again.

“Worryingly, these are voters who leant their vote to the Conservatives in 2019 and hoped to see a ‘levelled-up’ country. These are voters who make up the blue wall and are critical the success in seats in the Midlands, the south of England and more.

“Without these votes, no one can see how they hold on to their seats and secure another electoral victory in a general election. For the first time since the election, they see the risk that comes with these stories and the current prime minister. They saw the falling poll ratings but never saw what that meant for them directly and it’s this insecurity that will drive them to find a successor to Johnson.”

Another former adviser to a Tory cabinet minister said he believed the script was already written and it would not end well for Boris Johnson. “They can talk about waiting for Sue Gray and they may do. But it is like watching one of those nature programmes where the animal is trapped and we know how it ends. They may as well just get on with it before more damage is done.

“We all know it is over for Boris.”





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