Boris Johnson can’t cling to power for much longer

The prime minister may survive his fixed penalty notice but he’s still on borrowed time

April 12, 2022
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Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

A few weeks ago, when I was writing a profile of Boris Johnson for the Times Magazine, I was informed by several senior MPs that if the prime minister was issued with a fixed penalty notice by the police then the letters demanding a confidence vote would go in and his time would be up. Andrew Mitchell, the well-connected former chief whip who supported Johnson for the leadership but has since become disillusioned with him, was confident that a police fine would be the trigger for a concerted attempt to oust the Tory leader. “Our party has an entirely transactional relationship,” he told me in February. “Boris is a bit like a medieval monarch ruling in a medieval court. Much of being prime minister [involves] hard work and laser-like dedication to the detail, and that is just not Boris. It feels now very much as though Boris thinks what’s in Boris’s interest is in the national interest and I’m afraid it’s not.”

None of that has changed, but the question as the latest chapter of the Partygate scandal unfolds is what mood the Conservative Party is in. Now that the prime minister and the chancellor have both been issued with fines themselves, there is excited discussion over whether they can survive. So far there is no sign that enough backbenchers are prepared to put in their letters to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady to trigger a confidence vote. The leadership plotting fizzled out as the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis made MPs reassess their priorities. Roger Gale, one of those who had previously called for Johnson to resign, indicated the mood when he tweeted today: “We are facing the most serious international crisis since 1945… There will be a day of domestic reckoning for the prime minister but that time is not now.” Another senior Conservative, who still wants Johnson to go now, says: “I think the party needs to go on a course for slow learners.”

Johnson himself has seemed determined to brazen the whole episode out. It is extraordinary that the prime minister’s former spokeswoman Allegra Stratton should have resigned for joking about Downing Street parties but the prime minister apparently has no intention of quitting for actually attending them. The fact that Rishi Sunak, who was until the revelations about his wife’s non-dom status the most likely successor as Tory leader, has also been fined will only make the prime minister more confident that he can cling to power.

Sunak—who had tried to distance himself from the Partygate scandal, and was conspicuously reticent in his support for the prime minister over the issue—is now caught up in it, and his candidacy in any future leadership contest looks much less certain. That will also affect the calculations of MPs, who were already starting to worry about who would replace Johnson if he were toppled. There are many who are terrified about the prospect of Liz Truss becoming leader, which now looks more likely.

The Conservative MPs who hold Johnson’s fate in their hands will, however, be making a big mistake if they think that the fixed penalty notices are no more important than parking fines. The police have now confirmed that the prime minister and the chancellor broke the draconian lockdown laws that they themselves introduced. They partied at a time of national crisis while the rest of the country was making unbearable sacrifices. That Carrie Johnson has also been issued with a fixed penalty notice—she has already paid and apologised—only adds to the sense that it was one rule for the residents of Downing Street and another rule for everybody else.

There have now been more than 50 referrals for fixed penalty notices for breaches of Covid regulations at the top of government. Matt Fowler, a co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said it was “unbelievably painful” to learn of the scale of the rule-breaking in Number 10. “It’s now indisputable that whilst bereaved families were unable to be at their loved ones’ sides in their last moments, or stood at their funerals alone, the people responsible for protecting us in Downing Street were partying and rule breaking en masse.”

It is also now clear that Johnson misled MPs, which is normally a resignation offence. The prime minister presided over a culture of dishonesty, incompetence and arrogance in Number 10 that led to multiple breaches of the law, then tried to cover it up, insisting—including in the House of Commons—that there had been no parties. Having already raised questions about judgment and leadership in Downing Street, Sue Gray is unlikely to mince her words when she produces her full report, after the police investigation is finished.

Even before the latest revelations, the public was less forgiving than parliament. An Opinium survey in January found that 69 per cent of the public thought staff who faced fines should lose their jobs, and 64 per cent believed Tory MPs should vote that they have no confidence in the prime minister. Public opinion is much less fickle than political favour. In focus groups, voters still regularly express their fury about the lockdown breaches and the hypocrisy they reveal. Ruth Davidson, who transformed the Tories’ fortunes as the party’s leader in Scotland, captured the mood better than many MPs when she said that the PM “lost the moral authority to lead” when he “broke the rules he imposed on the country.” She added: “He should go.”

There is a sense of entitlement underlying the Downing Street parties that reinforces the Tories’ most profound brand problem—that they are the party of the rich, who believe that the rules are for little people but not for them. The prime minister has always acted as if the normal rules do not apply to him in both his personal and his political life, and so it is impossible for him to be the person to overturn this toxic perception. That is why, when they are being honest with themselves, many Conservative MPs still believe—as one former cabinet minister put it to me this afternoon—“it’s a case of when, not if” he is ousted.