The government wants to put Partygate behind it. This week has shown how hard that will be

Boris Johnson is certainly not out of the woods yet

April 22, 2022
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

And breathe. One thing we now know for sure about Partygate is that we will not know anything new until the other side of the local elections on 5th May. The Met Police confirmed on Thursday that they would not provide any further updates on their investigation until after polling day and the government will release the Sue Gray report only once the police investigations have concluded. MPs voted on Thursday to refer Boris Johnson to the Privileges Committee—asking it to inquire into whether he “knowingly” misled the Commons—but also not until the police investigations were over. There is no mechanism for new information to emerge, at least for the next fortnight.

So where are we now? The prime minister—whose fate rests in the hands of his Conservative Party colleagues—is certainly not out of the woods yet. It is clear that further Fixed Penalty Notices remain a possibility, if not a probability, given that the birthday gathering for which he has already been fined was considered in Whitehall to have been the least serious of the gatherings he attended. And the release of the full Sue Gray report—to which the government has committed—has the potential to embarrass Johnson further, particularly given the extensive documentary and photographic evidence she has collected. It is possible that this evidence will back up the prime minister’s claim that he was unconscious of any rule-breaking in Whitehall. Or it may undermine it.

Meanwhile, the government’s mishandling of the Privileges Committee vote has not improved Johnson’s position. By initially indicating that it would whip its MPs to oppose the opposition motion, the government simultaneously created the impression it had something to hide and generated unhappiness among its troops. With Labour trumpeting its plan to use the voting records of MPs who opposed an investigation in future election campaigns, some Conservative MPs, reportedly including junior ministers, told their whips they were not prepared to toe the line.

Even if a government defeat was not certain, the number of potential rebels was significant enough to prompt a screeching U-turn in the whips office, which withdrew a government amendment in the minutes before the debate began. Government MPs were given a free vote. The impression created was of panic and an operation hardly designed to boost trust between the Conservative leadership and the government ranks.

In the end, the opposition motion passed without a division—following a debate in which the prime minister’s position was further eroded by criticism from within the Tory ranks. This included, most significantly, the withdrawal of support by Steve Baker: the influential backbencher added his voice to that of former chief whip Mark Harper, who earlier in the week called for Johnson to resign. Nonetheless, the total number of MPs who have declared they no longer support the prime minister remains well below the 54 needed to trigger a party confidence motion via the 1922 Committee, and even further below the 180 who would have to vote for him actually to be removed as leader.

But the mood music has shifted somewhat this week, and not in Johnson’s favour. The vote for the Privileges Committee inquiry has ensured that public discussion of Partygate will continue well into the coming months. Added to the possibility of future fines and an uncomfortable report from Sue Gray, Johnson now faces the prospect of the committee taking evidence from witnesses in public and documentary disclosures with the potential for further embarrassment. This is not a certainty—the Privileges Committee, which has a Conservative majority, may decide to conduct a more limited exercise—but MPs cannot be sure at this stage. What is clear is that the opposition has no intention of allowing the government to move on and put Partygate behind it.