Boris Johnson is facing the most politically perilous moment of his premiership, as he continues to come under intense scrutiny over his involvement in a series of No 10 drinks parties held in the midst of England’s lockdowns to combat the coronavirus.
Having initially said in December he was “sickened” at the prospect of Downing Street employees ignoring social restrictions, the prime minister found himself sidestepping questions about whether he too had attended an event on 20 May 2020 after an explosive leaked email provided evidence that over 100 staff were invited to attend the bash and “bring your own booze”.
No 10 stonewalled questions over that party – pointing to the active Whitehall investigation being led by the senior civil servant Sue Gray into rule-breaking events – but anger only grew among Tory MPs and Conservative-leaning newspapers.
Finally, at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons at high noon on Wednesday 12 January, Mr Johnson did address the issue, confirming that he had attended the garden gathering for around 25 minutes with the intention of thanking his staff for their efforts during the pandemic while claiming, somewhat improbably: “I believed implicitly that it was a work event.”
He apologised, expressed empathy for the public fury in light of the personal sacrifices millions had made and implored his critics to await the outcome of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgement.
That cut little ice with opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer who described the prime minister as a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road” and “without shame”, derided his mea culpa as “worthless” following “months of deceit and deception” and called on him to resign, the seething disdain in his voice drawing chuckles of laughter from across Parliament while members of Mr Johnson’s frontbench sat stoney-faced behind their Covid masks.
“Why does he think the rules do not apply to him?,” Sir Keir asked, incredulous, voicing the thoughts of millions.
Support for the embattled prime minister subsequently trickled in from Cabinet colleagues (and potential leadership challengers) like deputy PM Dominic Raab, chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss, without a great deal of enthusiasm evident.
Since then, news of more parties has emerged, with The Daily Telegraph reporting that Downing Street staff attended two separate events on 16 April 2021, the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, which saw the Queen sit alone in accordance with strict Covid rules as she bade farewell to her husband of 73 years.
Both events are said to have been leaving parties for staff working in the prime minister’s inner team. One was reportedly held for James Slack, Mr Johnson’s then-director of communications, and the other for his personal photographer.
Witnesses said that “excessive alcohol” was drunk, attendees danced to music DJ’d by a special adviser beyond midnight and, at one point, a staffer was sent out to the local branch of Co-op to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.
Further reports alleged that Carrie Johnson attended a friend’s rule-breaking engagement celebration in September 2020, prompting her to apologise for a “lapse in judgement”, and that the prime minister gave an address at another leaving do in December 2020, this time for defence adviser Captain Steve Higham.
In the latest twist, the PM’s estranged former adviser Dominic Cummings has claimed that Mr Johnson knew about the 20 May event and had therefore lied to Parliament, prompting Mr Raab to make a rather clumsy attempt at defending him on the morning news shows.
Meanwhile, during a hospital visit on Tuesday 18 January, the prime minister invited further exasperated ridicule when he told Sky News: “I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules… nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that.”
Prior to these latest outrages, a poll found that two-thirds of the public (66 per cent) believed the PM should resign over his role in the parties.
But will Boris Johnson go? The calls for him to step aside are already becoming deafening.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, warned: “If he [the PM] has breached his own guidance, if he has not been truthful, then it is an extremely important issue… If the prime minister has misled Parliament, then he must resign.”
Despite Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s astonishing dismissal of Mr Ross as “a lightweight figure” during an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight, his comments stand as a damning indictment of Mr Johnson’s wayward leadership.
But, so far, the prime minister has continued to reach for the increasingly farcical defence that he cannot comment on the allegations until Ms Gray’s inquiry concludes. The results of that probe (no timetable has been set out publicly) will be crucial in determining his future. If it finds he broke lockdown rules at the No 10 gathering, calls for his resignation will only grow louder still.
Before that heated Prime Minister’s Questions session, backbench Conservative MP Nigel Mills said his position would be “untenable” and it would be a resigning mater if he was found to be at the May 2020 event.
Perhaps, but any frequent observer of the Johnson administration might point to the prime minister’s reluctance to sack his own ministers for breaches of the ministerial code and expect him to attempt to ride out the current storm.
It also remains to be seen whether the Metropolitan Police launches a formal investigation into rule-breaking in No 10. After reports emerged on Monday of the 20 May gathering, the force said it was “in contact” with the Cabinet Office over “alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street”.
Ministers have previously said the inquiry by Ms Gray will be “paused” if the Met does formally investigate. But even if the force does opt for this route and wrong-doing is found, it is by no means certain Mr Johnson will step down as prime minister.
There are many different paths towards a potential resignation, but just two years after winning a thumping majority at a general election, he is unlikely to resign on his own accord. As Conservative commentators have previously highlighted, the party has a brutal record of deposing of leaders it no longer sees an electoral asset and a forced exit is the most likely route for any resignation.
Either the Cabinet could launch a full-scale revolt with senior ministers telling the prime minister to stand down (perhaps unlikely) or 15 per cent of the Conservative Party’s MPs could submit letters of no confidence in the prime minister to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories.
The number of letters submitted at any given point is a closely guarded secret by Sir Graham but, if the required number is reached, it would trigger a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson and his premiership would be on the line. Theresa May, whose premiership was dealt a terminal blow by her ill-fated election gamble, survived a confidence vote in December 2018 but eventually resigned six months later.
For the time being, however, around 20 Tory MPs are reported to have submitted a letter and Mr Johnson’s allies are adamant he is “going nowhere”, with a minister insisting: “The prime minister retains the confidence of the people of this country and he did so two years ago with the biggest majority in decades”.