Boris Johnson is done for

With the new Downing Street party revelations, the prime minister’s career is nearing its ignominious end

January 11, 2022
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Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

Just as things were beginning to calm down, the party started back up. The new evidence that a large drinks event was held in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 is bad enough. Witness reports of Boris Johnson’s personal attendance could hardly be more devastating. It caps the rapid and shocking political collapse of one of Britain’s most successful politicians. The remainder of the prime minister’s term may be measured in weeks. 

It is not difficult to see why this story is so damaging. On the most visceral level, hundreds of thousands of people during the lockdowns were unable to visit loved ones in hospital or care homes, and in many cases never saw them again. Even those who were spared such traumatic experiences will have suffered under the weight of the lockdown rules. The vast majority sought to comply, and would never have dreamed of attending such brazen gatherings. On the day of the garden party, the Metropolitan Police tweeted a reminder that, despite the good weather, people could only meet in groups of two. Shortly before the party began, then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden took to the Downing Street lectern to reinforce the message. Johnson simply didn’t care.

The prime minister’s character flaws are well-rehearsed. This is a man who, in his personal and professional life, appears to do things only because he thinks he can get away with them. But the PM has, with this latest episode, managed to fall short even of the low levels of personal integrity expected of him.

And yet this is not simply a failure of leadership or ethics. It is also colossally stupid. Johnson should have known that news of a party would one day leak, and that anyone who knew about it would have the power to destroy his career. It was extraordinary that he allowed it to take place and even more extraordinary that he seems to have attended.

Johnson’s response to the drama compounds the sense that he has lost all his remaining political judgement. His policy of deferring all questions until we see the outcome of Sue Gray’s Cabinet Office inquiry is self-evidently absurd. It is not simply that Johnson is effectively asking a civil servant if he attended a party in his own garden; if he did attend then it makes no sense not to admit it immediately and attempt to limit the damage, and if he did not, then he is dragging out a political crisis for no reason. His presumed strategy, if he has one, is to hope that no pictures emerge of his attendance and that Gray either finds insufficient evidence or offers only mild reproach. Neither prospect seems likely. That is before considering all the other lockdown events being investigated by Gray. The situation for the PM looks bleak.

Johnson’s most fundamental problem is the failure of his brand. The cumulative impact of recent scandals has torpedoed public trust. Perhaps even more dangerously, Labour’s Keir Starmer is now viewed as more competent and a better candidate for prime minister. A narrative is building, and now consolidating, that Johnson has become an electoral liability. That is not just the subject of opinion polls or comment pieces—it is less than four weeks since the Conservatives lost one of their safest seats, North Shropshire, in the seventh largest by-election swing since the Second World War. Johnson was only ever elected to lead his party because he knew how to win. If he no longer does, he has nothing else to offer.

Admittedly, the first rule of our current politics is that you never underestimate Johnson. Even a damning set of conclusions from Gray does not automatically dispatch him, and on matters of ministerial probity he is, preposterously, his own judge. But if he does not resign, the formal process for removing him from office (other than through a general election) is that 55 MPs submit letters of no-confidence to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. His growing unpopularity among the parliamentary rank and file would appear to make that a formality.

Even if the party clings to Johnson in the short term, it is almost impossible to imagine him lasting until the next election. Backbenchers may, indeed, want him in office just long enough to absorb all the flak from the scandals, and out of office just soon enough for his successor to bed in. According to a recent YouGov poll of Conservative members, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are considered more viable leaders than the incumbent, despite their own electoral flaws.

Johnson’s success—which was always a combination of skill and luck—was to unite the Tories’ traditional rural heartlands, small towns held by Labour until 2010, socially or economically liberal areas in the south and west formerly held by the Liberal Democrats, and Brexit-supporting seats in the north and Midlands captured in 2019 for the first time.

Part of that (though less than often assumed) came down to his personal appeal. Part of it was the perceived weakness of his opponent at the time, Jeremy Corbyn. Part of it, of course, was the devastatingly effective call to “get Brexit done” cleanly and easily—a call which won over even some Remain voters exhausted by three years of political turmoil. The trouble is that he will never be able to repeat the same trick. The bigger problem for the Conservatives is that nobody else will either. The fundamental collapse of trust may in fact be an electoral death sentence.

Over the last two and half years Johnson’s popularity and the popularity of the Conservative Party have been entwined. He has now bound the fate of both. This is about more than one man. It is, perhaps, about two parties: the Downing Street garden and the Conservatives. The risk for the government is that the first brings down the second.