Andrew McKie: Boris Johnson may yet survive parties scandal

UNTIL the Met weighed in, there were, when you think about it, few reasons why the Prime Minister, and those lackeys sent out as camera fodder, should ever have said “We’ll have to wait until we see what Sue Gray’s report says”.

Yet that’s just about all they’ve said for weeks now, to the quite staggering detriment of Boris Johnson’s electoral approval rating (minus 46, the same as Theresa May at her lowest ebb).

A few bits of it might have been up for dispute, such as whether the presence of a glass of wine or a cake automatically makes a gathering a party. And for some of the incidents – including the notorious “suitcase of wine” – the PM wasn’t even present. Much of that’s irrelevant, though.

For the most part, he could easily have said where he was and when, and admitted that the behaviour in and around Downing Street by him, ministers, civil servants and staff was quite unlike that of most other people under lockdown. There might even be some feeble defence for that (all the stuff about working round the clock to roll out the vaccine is no doubt true).

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But the “update” to the report issued yesterday is fairly clear: there were “failures of leadership and judgment”; at least some of the gatherings “should not have been allowed to take place” and “represent a serious failure to observe” standards. The fact that 12 of the 16 incidents addressed by Ms Gray are now the subject of criminal investigation may have bought the PM time, but that position is in itself seriously damning and damaging.

Of course, part of the reasons Mr Johnson kept invoking Ms Gray’s report to avoid straight answers was to buy time. He knows, or should know, perfectly well that, in terms of political impact, it doesn’t matter whether these incidents were technically permissible or not.

That may still matter to the police, but the public anger is about the fact that during that period people were unable to see their dying relatives, to attend funerals, run their businesses or meet their friends – a point Ms Gray makes. They may or may not care about whether some special advisor had a glass of wine in the rose garden, but most of them care a lot about the fact that, had they done the same, they could have been arrested and fined.

There’s no mystery about the desire to buy time, however, which is why the PM was still at it during yesterday’s statement, shifting to the police investigations rather than Ms Gray’s findings. There’s only so long that any story can stay front and centre, and with quite a lot of other stuff – from the impending National Insurance rise to the possibility of war in Ukraine – going on, it was natural to hope that public attention would shift. Some sections of the public may even think it should, or at any rate that the cost of living, housing and energy crises matter more in the grand scheme of things.

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None of that means they’re likely to forgive and forget, or helps the PM’s ratings out of the Stygian depths where they currently abide. Sir Keir Starmer, on blistering form yesterday, presented a much more convincing case than the PM – as, for that matter, did Lady May.

But Ms Gray’s report states that there’s plenty she knows about but cannot yet issue because of the Met’s investigations, and it can’t really be plausible to conclude that much of it will be obliging for Mr Johnson’s case. Reorganising Number 10 (and presumably sacking a few people) doesn’t really add up to: “I get it, I’ll fix it.”

His feeble attempts to pivot straight to some waffle about freeports were a pretty obvious indication of his failure to judge the mood. But the constituency that really counts is the one Mr Johnson was addressing last night: the 1922 committee.

The questions for Tory MPs are whether Mr Johnson will return to popularity with a large enough section of the public, and whether, if he doesn’t, someone else would be a notable improvement. The answer to both questions could well be “no”, but then they’re doomed in any case.

If the answer to the first is “no”, and the second “yes”, they should obviously ditch him. But if the answer to the first is even “maybe”, many of them may pause – even though some, such as Andrew Mitchell, have clearly already decided that enough is enough.

The reason for that may be base and self-interested, but it’s also clear-cut. In 2019, the Conservative Party finished a disastrous fifth in the European elections. A matter of months later, under Mr Johnson, it won an 80-seat majority in a general election. He is abysmally unpopular at the moment, but he’s been in that position before, and returned to favour. It hardly matters, as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair discovered, if 35 per cent of the country absolutely loathes a politician, if they can produce that sort of change in attitude with the section that wins elections.

So the argument for thinking Mr Johnson is a special case is there – even if it’s currently highly implausible, and its principal and most forceful proponent is always Mr Johnson himself. The next few days will show whether his parliamentary party thinks it worth clinging on to. There is the danger that failing to act now will create further damage, but on the whole, it’s hard to see that anything would make matters appreciably worse than they already are.

On the other hand, emerging from the pandemic period, rapid economic growth and some other, currently unknown, events or factors may let the PM survive. You would bet against it – if it were anyone else but Mr Johnson you’d stake your house on it – but it’s, just and only just, a possibility.

The worst of all possible outcomes, from the Tories’ point of view, would be a leadership challenge that the PM survives, but that leaves him badly damaged, as Lady May was in her terminal months. If they don’t ditch him now, they would still have the option in a few months time. If he survives the next week or two, that will be the only reason for it.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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