A few weeks ago, when I was writing the portrait of Boris Johnson for the Times Magazine, I was told by several senior MPs that if the Prime Minister received notice of a fixed fine from the police, letters asking for a vote of confidence would be sent and his time would run out. Andrew Mitchell, the well-connected former chief whip who backed Johnson for the leadership but has since been disillusioned, was convinced 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 reigning in a medieval court. A big part of being prime minister [involves] hard work and laser-like dedication to detail, and that’s just not Boris. I now feel that Boris thinks what is in Boris’ interest is in the national interest and I’m afraid that’s not the case.
None of that has changed, but the question, as the latest chapter in the Partygate scandal unfolds, is what mood the Conservative Party is in. can survive. So far, there has been no indication that enough backbench MPs are prepared to send their letters to 1922 committee chairman Graham Brady to trigger a vote of confidence. The leaders’ plot crumbled as the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis caused MPs to reassess their priorities. Roger Gale, one of those who had previously called for Johnson’s resignation, set the mood when he tweeted today: “We are facing the gravest international crisis since 1945… There is will be a national doomsday for the Prime Minister but this time is not now.Another senior Tory, who still wants Johnson to leave now, said: “I think the party needs to take a course for slow learners. “
Johnson himself seemed determined to scare the whole episode. It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister’s former spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, resigned for joking about the Downing Street parties, but the Prime Minister apparently has no intention of resigning to attend. The fact that Rishi Sunak, who until the revelations about his wife’s non-dom status was the most likely successor to Tory leadership, 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 clearly reluctant to back the prime minister on the issue – is now caught up in it, and his candidacy in any future leadership race looks far less certain. It will also affect the calculations of MPs, who were already beginning to worry about who would replace Johnson if he were toppled. Many are terrified of Liz Truss becoming the leader, which now seems more likely.
Tory MPs who hold Johnson’s fate in their own hands, however, are making a big mistake if they think notices of fixed penalties are no more important than parking fines. Police have now confirmed that the Prime Minister and Chancellor broke the draconian lockdown laws they themselves introduced. They celebrated at a time of national crisis as the rest of the country made unbearable sacrifices. The fact that Carrie Johnson has also received a fixed penalty notice – she has already paid and apologized – only adds to the feeling that this was a rule for the people of Downing Street and a another rule for everyone 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, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said it was “incredibly painful” to learn of the extent of the rule violation in Issue 10. “It is now indisputable that while the Bereaved families were unable to be with their loved ones in their final moments, or stood alone at their funerals, those tasked with protecting us in Downing Street were partying and breaking the rules 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 – about the fact that there had been no parties. Having already raised questions about judgment and leadership in Downing Street, Sue Gray is unlikely to mince words when she delivers her full report, once the police investigation is over.
Even before the latest revelations, the public was less forgiving than Parliament. An Opinium poll in January found that 69% of members of the public who faced fines should lose their jobs, and 64% thought Tory MPs should vote they had no confidence in the Prime Minister . Public opinion is much less fickle than political favor. In the focus groups, voters still regularly express their fury at the breaches of containment and the hypocrisy they reveal. Ruth Davidson, who turned the Tories’ fortunes as party leader in Scotland, captured the mood better than many MPs when she said the Prime Minister ‘lost the moral authority to lead’ when he “had broken the rules he imposed on the country”. She added, “He should go.”
There is an underlying sense of entitlement to the Downing Street parties which reinforces the Tories’ deepest branding problem – that they are the party of the rich, who believe 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, both in his personal and political life, and so it is impossible for him to be the person to reverse this toxic perception. That is why, when honest with themselves, many Conservative MPs still believe — as a former cabinet minister told me this afternoon — ‘it’s about when, not if’ it’s ousted.