The Downing Street resignations can only be bad news for Boris Johnson

Whether or not any No 10 staff were actually sacked, their departure weakens the PM’s position

February 04, 2022
Munira Mirza with Boris Johnson. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Munira Mirza with Boris Johnson. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The latest resignations from 10 Downing Street have various possible explanations; but all are bad for Boris Johnson.

Chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, comms chief Jack Doyle and principal private secretary Martin Reynolds were made to pay the price for their role in the “Partygate” scandal. In one of those typically opaque statements of the kind that accompany the fallout from nasty boardroom rows in dysfunctional companies, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said they were departing “by mutual consent.”

Leave aside whether this means they were actually sacked; the real question that the “mutual consent” statement leaves unanswered is whether the three men were deemed to have done anything seriously wrong, or are merely victims of Johnson’s desperate attempts to save his own political skin.

The unwillingness to provide an answer is understandable, because either way Johnson looks bad. If they have broken the lockdown rules, we are seeing the application of the principle that anyone at the heart of government who breaks such rules should lose their job. If that is the case, then the prime minister would find it hard to explain why he is keeping his.

On the other hand, if they are not accused of committing any sackable offences, but merely of having become a political liability to Johnson, then he has abandoned any shred of decency that should be displayed by a boss to loyal members of his staff.

Munira Mirza’s departure falls into a different category; and if and when Elena Narozanski, a member of Mirza’s team, explains her own resignation, we may find that the two women’s reasons are much the same.

Mirza’s now-famous resignation letter is remarkable, not simply for its directness, but because seldom, if ever, has someone who has been so close to any prime minister for so long quit in order to defend the character of the leader of the Opposition. Mirza, former director of the No 10 policy unit, was far from the only Conservative to be appalled when Johnson told MPs on Monday that Starmer, when he was director of public prosecutions, “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out.”

Mirza wrote that “there was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion.” She tried to persuade Johnson to retract it and to apologise for “an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child abuse.”

Johnson clearly felt he had done enough to draw a line under this ugly controversy when he said on Thursday: “Let’s be absolutely clear, I’m talking not about the leader of the Opposition’s personal record when he was DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions.”

Mirza’s riposte in her resignation letter will surely have met with the approval not just of Johnson’s critics, or worried Conservative backbenchers, but anyone with a basic understanding of the English language who compares what Johnson said on Monday with his remarks three days later. Mirza wrote: “You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”

Johnson plainly knew what he was saying on Monday, and why his “clarification” was mealy-mouthed. He has been one of the most entertaining political writers of our time. He knows exactly what effect he hopes to have on his audience. It wasn’t that he tried to set the record straight on Thursday and failed; it was that he only pretended to do so.

What will Conservative MPs do now? If they act swiftly to depose Johnson and hold a fresh election for a new party leader, they might regain a shred of decency and public respect. The longer they defend Johnson with statements as mealy-mouthed as his, the harder it will be for them and their party to recover.

So let us not—or not only—talk in terms of decency and morality, but in the basic currency of political trading: self-interest. What every minister and Tory backbencher says about Johnson this weekend, and next week, and next month, will remain on the record. In deciding whether to help the prime minister hang on, the question they can usefully ask themselves is this: will I be happy to defend those words to the voters in my constituency at the next election?