In the days when he combined the job of Tory MP with editing the Spectator magazine, Boris Johnson was forced to go to Liverpool to apologise following the publication of a gratuitously offensive editorial about the city. Later, revealing his true feelings, he derided the episode as “Operation Scouse-grovel”. But the faux-contrition did the trick. In his biography of Mr Johnson, the journalist Andrew Gimson writes: “The Liverpool debacle did no lasting damage. It amused a great number of people and made him even more famous.”
Faced with a nation’s outrage during a public health crisis, Mr Johnson appears to have believed he could get away with a similarly disingenuous approach. Unable to deny that he attended a lockdown-breaking drinks party in the garden of Downing Street, the prime minister has issued grovelling apologies while deploying sophistry to evade the consequences of his actions. His latest self-exculpatory move – made during an abject interview with Sky television – was to suggest that no one in No 10 warned him that the May 2020 party broke Covid rules. The language chosen was deliberately specific, failing to rule out warnings of a more general kind; but in essence Mr Johnson asked the country to swallow the idea that he was the only person in Downing Street who did not understand what was taking place on 20 May. It is a proposition so shamelessly implausible that one senses that even Mr Johnson does not expect it to be believed.
The question thus becomes what the Conservative party intends to do about a leader who has brought the government into disrepute, and betrayed the nation’s trust at a time of crisis. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, the senior Tory MP David Davis echoed the words used to dispatch a previous Tory prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, in 1940, telling Mr Johnson: “In the name of God, go.” It was an appropriate message for a prime minister whose cavalier approach to the lockdown rules he himself set confirms an unfitness for office.
The defection of a northern Tory MP to Labour also testified to the extent to which Mr Johnson’s authority is draining away. But while the prime minister’s behaviour has succeeded in uniting MPs from different party factions against him, there is disunity over how to proceed. Some MPs, particularly among the 2019 election intake, favour moving to a vote of no confidence and a possible leadership contest immediately; others wish to wait to hear Sue Gray’s report on the Downing Street parties before acting. Those with ambitions to succeed Mr Johnson as prime minister, such as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, would doubtless prefer more time to prepare their challenge.
This internal division and indecision is currently allowing the prime minister to survive from day to day. Despite plunging poll ratings and a shot reputation, Mr Johnson clearly remains determined to brazen out “partygate” if he possibly can, hoping that Wednesday’s lifting of Covid plan B restrictions will help his cause. As he staggers on, populist policy is being made on the hoof – from bashing the BBC to deploying the Royal Navy to confront migrants – in an attempt to shore up Mr Johnson’s position.
It is a dismal, unsustainable state of affairs: a prime minister whose attempts to evade responsibility for his actions have not worked sits tight and hopes for the best; a party that has been too long in power calculates how to hold on to it once he has gone. As Britain faces the headwinds of a cost of living crisis, and attempts to navigate a successful exit from the Covid pandemic, it requires a prime minister it can respect and, at a basic level, trust. It does not have one.