I’ve been asked the question several times over the past couple of weeks if I think Boris is toast. I’ve only refrained from replying in the affirmative because of the evident absence of contenders waiting in the wilderness for the call to mount a challenge. There’s no obvious Michael Heseltine figure building up support and no Geoffrey Howe moment giving such a candidate the ammunition to strike when the Prime Minister is at his most vulnerable. Right now, the members of the Cabinet appear too mindful of their own perilous positions to stick the knife in with a devastating resignation speech or risk a career by standing against Boris, and of those exiled to the backbenches, none have the political clout or popular appeal that seemed set to hand the reins of power to Heseltine in 1990. Perhaps the fact Mrs Thatcher’s former Defence Secretary famously failed in his bid is at the back of Ministers’ minds as they shuffle uneasily in their seats and watch on as Boris stands in the firing line following the publication of the Sue Gray report into the ‘alleged breaches of lockdown’ at Downing Street.
Certainly, this is the PM’s most testing time since he blustered his way into Downing Street in 2019, ousting an unpopular and ineffective predecessor, neutralising the Brexit deniers by proroguing Parliament and enjoying a brief bask in the glow of a landslide Election victory. Then…well, we all know as to how events (dear boy) took control of the narrative; always tempting to imagine a non-Covid parallel universe in which the damage done by Boris’s multiple personality flaws was minimal due to them not being unduly tested, maybe even a non-Covid parallel universe in which Dominic Cummings remained the Prime Minister’s Mandelson rather than coming back to haunt him as the ghost of parties past. But it was not to be. Boris Johnson faced an unprecedented crisis and, unlike his great hero and inspiration when confronted by the nation’s darkest hour, he blew it. Whatever comedic charm lingered from his days as a refreshing alternative to the production-line politicians so loathed by the electorate was well and truly exhausted and extinguished by the double standards at play during the coronavirus Project Fear.
Interestingly, the majority of the outrage emanating from the ramifications of Project Fear isn’t so much based around the anti-democratic nature of the restrictions themselves – not to mention the extreme manner of their policing; lest we forget, the Labour Party currently indulging in a socially-distanced foxtrot on the PM’s grave repeatedly wanted those restrictions extended even further into the private sphere. No, what has struck a nerve with the British public more than anything in the wake of all the revelations is that the sacrifices they were asked to make and the misery they were forced to endure throughout the numerous lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 were not deemed sufficiently life-saving by those imposing them, those who took to our TV screens night after night to reiterate them in scaremongering, doom-laden language that implied following them was a do-or-die scenario. If the Government didn’t believe in them – and the behaviour of certain Ministers (including the First Lord of the Treasury himself) proves they didn’t – then they took us all for mugs. Well, that’s a bloody great surprise, isn’t it.
After dragging their heels in a fashion contrary to the way in which they vigorously policed the plebs during the lockdowns, the men from the Met have finally got their finger out and are apparently ‘investigating a gathering’ held in Boris’s Downing Street apartment, one that might possibly have breached the laws at the time. As has now become common knowledge, this gathering was no isolated incident within the ivory towers of the PM’s abode and the Met aren’t simply investigating this one non-party; they’re looking into all the others as well. According to the MSM, the Met investigations are responsible for the eagerly-anticipated Sue Gray report being published in an edited format, a bit like a trailer for the movie that remains frustratingly unreleased in its director’s cut. ‘As a result of the Metropolitan Police’s investigations, and so as not to prejudice the police investigation process,’ writes Gray, ‘they have told me that it would only be appropriate to make minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates they are investigating. Unfortunately, this necessarily means that I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather.’
A huge sigh of relief coming from the direction of Downing Street, no doubt; but the PM hasn’t been entirely let off even with the slim-line, 12-page version of the report that appeared today. The paragraphs highlighting the ‘failures of leadership and judgement’ that are ‘difficult to justify’ may not name names, but it hardly even seems necessary. Of the 16 ‘events’ Gray has studied, booze looms large as the drinking culture that seems to be endemic at No.10 falls under the spotlight. ‘The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time,’ writes Gray. History tells us past PMs such as Churchill and Harold Wilson often found solace in a decanter to relieve the stress of the difficult times they governed in, but a quiet after-hours soak in spirits at the end of the working day is a far cry from a pissed-up Downing Street bearing more of a resemblance to a Bullingdon Club pub crawl than the heart of Government. And this at a time when the country beyond No.10’s hedonistic bubble was experiencing extreme personal privations imposed upon it by the same people gleefully ignoring them.
Last month, Boris denied during PMQ’s that a party had been held in Downing Street on 13 November 2020; if the Gray report seems set to contradict this denial, the PM could be accused of misleading Parliament, an offence that might be expected to be accompanied with a resignation. But don’t hold your breath just yet. The Commons having its first opportunity to react to this ‘sample’ version of the Gray report was bound to produce a hostile environment for Boris, with the predictable calls for him to quit emanating from opposition parties. Tory backbenchers have not refrained from joining in, however. Noted anti-Project Fear Conservative MP Steve Baker spoke of the propaganda campaign’s effect on the public, ‘to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance’, and there’s also a fair bit of head shaking when it comes to the decision to hold a couple of parties at No.10 the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh; regardless of one’s opinion of old Philip, the staggering lack of sensitivity as the sovereign prepared to bury her husband is breathtaking.
As ever where shaky ground stood on by Tory Prime Ministers is concerned, a good deal rests with the response of the 1922 Committee and the 54 complaints against the occupant of No.10 that are required to trigger a leadership contest. We haven’t reached that stage yet, and the convenient intervention of the Met with regards to the full, unexpurgated incarnation of the Sue Gray report means Boris can momentarily deflect questions by announcing there will be no complete Government response to questions on the subject until the police investigation is itself complete – and that’ll hardly be this week. In the Commons today, the PM was able to quote from the current version of the report to support his stance: ‘No conclusions should be drawn or inferences made from this other than it is now for the police to consider the relevant material in relation to those incidents.’ Boris added that ‘it isn’t enough to say sorry’. No, it isn’t; yet, what might be deemed enough by those locked out of the Downing Street shindigs doesn’t appear likely at the moment – though we shall see.
© The Editor