Johnson faces final verdict on ‘partygate’ with threat receding

Boris Johnson is bracing for a final day of scrutiny over the illegal parties in Downing Street during the pandemic, a scandal that dogged his administration for months and almost ended his political career.

Civil servant Sue Gray, who led an internal probe into what the UK media has dubbed “partygate,” is due to hand her full findings to Johnson next week. The prime minister has committed to publishing them in full and will make a statement in Parliament to try to finally draw a line under the matter.

Gray’s report was long seen as the likely moment of maximum peril for Johnson, when the full scale of law-breaking and crucially, the level of his own knowledge and involvement, would be laid bare. Many of his Conservative Party critics said they would wait for the probe before deciding if they still wanted him as leader; “Waiting for Sue Gray” even became a Westminster punchline.

That was before the police decided – belatedly – they would also investigate the allegations. Gray was forced to release interim findings, which were damaging but not terminal for Johnson, and in the following weeks Tory attention shifted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis.

The moves against Johnson dissipated, and even when the police did fine him – for a gathering on his 56th birthday – and made him the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law, it did not trigger a rebellion.

Out of danger

That is likely to remain the case next week, especially after Johnson escaped further punishment for his attendance at other gatherings – despite other officials at the events receiving fines.

“The government will hope they can just ride it out,” Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government think-tank, said in an interview. “It does not feel as though there is any imminent risk to the prime minister.”

Yet there is still the potential for Gray’s report to hurt the prime minister, even if the risks take longer to play out. Much will depend on the level of detail the civil servant goes into, whether she includes names and especially if reports she has photographic evidence prove to be true.

Images of parties and alcohol would again highlight the discrepancy between officials’ behavior during the pandemic and the sacrifices politicians asked the public to make, even more so now that Britons face a record squeeze on living standards due to rampant inflation.

Public anger

“It seems to me possible that members of the public who could not visit elderly or dying relatives feel very strongly about the issue,” Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College, London, said in an interview. “The Sue Gray report could still damage the government.”

Another risk for Johnson is if Gray’s findings contradict his various statements to Parliament on “partygate” and his overriding defense that he was either unaware of the parties or believed the gatherings complied with the rules.

On December 1, Johnson told lawmakers that the pandemic guidance was “followed completely” in 10 Downing Street. He told Parliament two weeks later: “I certainly broke no rules.”

Making misleading statements to Parliament is conventionally seen as a breach of the ministerial code and cause for resignation. Johnson faces a separate parliamentary probe into whether he has lied about “partygate,” and that inquiry will begin once the Gray findings are published.

Johnson’s rules

But Johnson has long defied the traditional rules of politics and has repeatedly said he will not step down, while the impact of the Parliament probe is also likely to be weakened by the expectation that the committee will be Tory-led.

In fact, one irony of “partygate” is that the politician arguably most at risk of losing his job is opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer, who pledged to resign if police fine him over a beer and curry while campaigning last year. Several Tory MPs pushed hard for Starmer to be investigated, a move which also succeeded in taking some of the focus off Johnson.

The prime minister has taken steps to address the criticism of his leadership in Gray’s initial report, which said there’d been a “serious failure” to uphold high standards and urged an overhaul of the structures of power.

Some Tory MPs made that a condition of their support for Johnson, and in response he replaced senior staff and set up a new Office of the Prime Minister. He strengthened that again this week, pulling in more functions, a move his spokesman said was in direct response to Gray’s findings.

Within the Conservative Party, it appears Johnson has done enough.

“It’s time now to wholly focus on tackling current priorities,” James Sunderland, the Tory MP for Bracknell, said following the news Johnson would not be receiving further fines. “Not least the cost of living.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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