Illegal festive gatherings held in government headquarters during Covid lockdowns – commonly referred to as Partygate – continue to Boris Johnson and the Conservative (Tory) Party. The report by Sue Gray, a senior civil service official, published last week, criticised the leadership in the government structure and revealed embarrassing details about drinking and partying while the British people were following the rules and self-isolating at home. In his response to MPs at the House of Commons, Johnson repeated his apology and accepted responsibility. But he defied calls to resign.
“We got away with it” was the answer one Johnson aide gave another staff member warning that one party might be breaking the rules, as the report by Gray revealed. It looked like the same applied to Boris Johnson as pressure to oust him abated. Tory leadership supported the PM. Tory MPs who publicly criticised him and his government stopped short of calling on him to resign, unwilling to change their government in the middle of multiple crises: rising living costs, war in Ukraine, escalating dispute with Europe over Northern Ireland after Brexit, etc.
Though he has managed to weather scandals since he took office in 2019, Johnson may be facing a new kind of challenge this time. Tory MPs concerned about losing their seats in the next general election are growing. Political opposition from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats has pushed the issue to boiling point. Yet the PM still enjoys the support of party leadership and a majority of Tory MPs. Johnson tested that support this week by amending the Ministerial Code to make it possible for ministers and senior officials not to resign for wrongdoings and instead simlpy apologise.
That last move prompted a furious response by politicians who accuse Johnson of “behaving like a tinpot despot” and “trampling all over the principles of public life”, as Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said. She added, “It’s time to stop the rot that this prime minister has created at the heart of government and restore standards in public life.” But the Labour Party cannot do that, and it is up to Johnson’s party to unseat him by a no-confidence vote.
Many within the ruling party share Rayner’s sentiment, but the mood is still swinging. Senior members of the party are still considering their positions. But the number of angry MPs is rising. This week, Bob Neill, a former minister and chair of the Justice Committee, revealed that he had submitted a letter of no confidence this week to the committee of backbench MPs of the Conservative Party. He told the BBC: “These events have undermined trust in not just the office of the prime minister but in the political process itself. To rebuild that trust and move on, a change in leadership is required”, and he described the change to the ministerial codes as “not a wise move.”
To launch a no-confidence vote, 15 per cent of Tory MPs must submit letters to the committee, which means 45 MPs. So far, from public statements and media interviews one can count about 35 Tory MPs criticising Johnson, but those confirming submission of no-confidence letters are only around 22. Parliament is now in recess, and will be back on 6 June. Some analysts and media commentators are waiting until then to see if the number will reach 40.
There is also another date on the political agenda towards end of next month where by-elections in Tiverton and Wakefield will take place. The latter became up for grabs after Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan resigned following being convicted of sexual assault. If the Conservative Party loses the two seats, this will confirm the fear among many in the party that Boris Johnson has become a liability and must go.
There has been talk among senior party members that, after repeated scandals and revelations of corruption in government, Johnson should not lead the party in next, 2025 election, even if he stayed in his position for now. But opinion polls done after the publication of Sue Gray report show that Tory MPs might act sooner.
The latest YouGov poll published this week found that, out of 88 “battleground” constituencies the party took from Labour in the last election or holds with a narrow majority, just three would remain in Tory hands. Though media commentary considered that a good result for Labour, it would actually lead to a hung parliament. Results of local elections on 5 May showed that the Tories lost more seats to Liberal Democrats than to Labour.
Boris Johnson seems to have exhausted all his political tricks to save his position, as many analysts conclude. Next month could be a defining moment not only for him but for the Tories as a whole. But even if the party decided to change the prime minister, boiling British politics might not cool down, since no replacement can be more than a lame duck until January 2015.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.