Has Boris Johnson wriggled free of Partygate? The news that the prime minister will not receive any further fines over the scandal suggests he might. But Mr Johnson is not out of danger. The Metropolitan police’s investigation confirms that Downing Street held boozy parties while the rest of the country was under strict Covid lockdown. The prime minister’s attempts to dodge blame in front of MPs revealed his dishonesty.
Next week will bring the publication of the much-awaited report by Sue Gray, a veteran civil servant, into the parties at Downing Street. This will give a fuller picture of the breaches of the criminal law that took place in No 10. When the privileges committee begins its work, Mr Johnson will become the only prime minister to be investigated over claims that he intentionally misled parliament, in relation to this scandal.
Tory MPs could force Mr Johnson from office. If he survives, it would be ironic if Sir Keir Starmer goes. The Labour leader said that he would stick by his principles and resign if he is fined by Durham constabulary for breaking Covid rules. Such an outcome would leave politics poorer and underline Mr Johnson’s lack of scruples. Should both men stay in place, however, it will be the prime minister who faces a continuing threat of eviction from his position.
Mr Johnson is not in control of his own premiership. This is compounded by his lack of gravity in a crisis. With stagflation setting in, Mr Johnson is more interested in slogans than substance. He has yet to offer concrete measures to tackle the cost of living crisis. Voters’ patience is wearing thin. The Tories are slipping further behind Labour in the polls.
The trouble is that Mr Johnson has little time for self-reflection. Last year he wanted to become the longest-serving British prime minister of modern times. Hubris is the folly of a leader who through conceit challenges the gods. It is followed ultimately by nemesis. Mr Johnson’s arrogance and complacency in the face of mounting problems will have electoral consequences.
The prime minister’s inflated sense of entitlement rankles with the public. More than 120 fines were issued for law-breaking in Downing Street. Mr Johnson – and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak – were in April found to have broken lockdown rules by holding the prime minister’s birthday party indoors when ordinary voters could not even hold dying loved ones. Did they not know the rules they set for the rest of the country? Ignorance might be a defence for a prime minister; stupidity is not.
More plausible is that Mr Johnson did not care about the rules, or perhaps thought that they only applied to underlings. The police accepted, somewhat bizarrely, that Mr Johnson could have had a “reasonable excuse” to attend illegal gatherings when junior officials could not. This may be because the prime minister can afford better lawyers than his staff. But double standards corrupt public life from the top down.
For Mr Johnson, lying in politics is as natural as swimming in water. The prime minister agreed to a customs border in the Irish Sea to get Brexit done. He now pretends he did not. The lockdown breaches show just how out of touch Mr Johnson has become. Tory MPs must know that their party has lost its way. To regain purpose and authority, for the country’s sake as well as their own, Conservatives will need a new leader.