London: Boris Johnson bought some breathing space by apologising for attending a party at his Downing Street office during the first pandemic lockdown, but anger in his ruling UK Conservative Party means his grip on power is precarious.
Opposition politicians repeatedly called on him to resign during a heated session of Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament on Wednesday. Tory benches were subdued. Johnson’s apology, for now, was just enough to calm the mutinous mood among his MPs.
Following his mea culpa, most Tory MPs interviewed by Bloomberg said they would wait for the findings of a formal probe into the pandemic rule-breaking party - and other Downing Street gatherings - before deciding on any next steps. It would take 54 of them, or 15% of the total, to trigger a vote on Johnson’s future.
If an internal investigation finds Johnson misled Parliament over the parties or if the police find he was in the wrong, Johnson will be finished, one Conservative MP and former minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another privately described Johnson as a dead man walking.
“A great deal depends upon the outcome of the investigation,” said senior Tory MP Bernard Jenkin.
Only a handful have broken ranks. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, party veteran Roger Gale and William Wragg, a member of the executive of the influential 1922 committee of rank-and-file Conservatives, all publicly called for Johnson to resign.
“It’s difficult enough for colleagues,” Wragg told the BBC Radio 4. “They’re tired, they’re frankly worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible.”
The allegations, dubbed “partygate” by the UK press, have dominated even Tory-leaning newspaper front pages for weeks and contributed to a steep decline in support for the Conservatives in polls. The idea that politicians and officials didn’t stick to COVID-19 rules they designed has cut through with voters.
Johnson and his officials had spent days stonewalling after ITV reported that the premier’s senior adviser had invited about 100 people to a garden drinks party at No. 10 Downing Street in May 2020. Such gatherings were banned at the time as the UK battled the first wave of COVID-19 infections.
On Wednesday, Johnson finally broke his silence. “There were things we simply did not get right,” he told the House of Commons, adding that he thought he had been attending a “work” event. “I must take responsibility.” His office said Johnson had not seen the party invite, and had not ordered his principal private secretary to send the email.
Watching and waiting
Many Tory MPs said they are furious but aren’t willing to call time on Johnson yet. His next big moment could be the publication of a report into alleged lockdown-breaching parties by senior civil servant Sue Gray. The police may also yet get formally involved.
One issue Tories are chewing over is who can replace Johnson, the leader who delivered a stonking election victory in 2019, and if any of the contenders doing the rounds have matured enough to take the reins.
Any rivals wanting to oust Britain’s premier also know that moving too early carries a risk. If a no confidence vote were to be called and Johnson won, it would give him a year of immunity from another vote.
That hasn’t prevented speculation about leadership challengers emerging, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak frequently mentioned by the British media.
Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg told Times Radio that people in government “have an absolute duty to support” Johnson, before adding: “I’m confident that both the foreign secretary and the chancellor are doing their best to support the prime minister.”
For all the controversy, Johnson still has his backers in the Tory party. Many of the newly-elected Conservative MPs in 2019 feel like they owe their seats to Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” election campaign that helped deliver a commanding parliamentary majority, and won over districts that typically voted for the opposition Labour Party.
He’s also stored up credit among Conservatives over his recent handling of the pandemic, by resisting calls to impose tighter restrictions as the Omicron strain took hold. That decision appears to have been vindicated, with virus deaths and hospitalisations not surging drastically and England’s economy remaining more open than other nations.
At a regular meeting of the 1922 Committee on Wednesday, Cabinet minister Michael Gove told rank-and-file Tories that the prime minister gets the big decisions right, according to one MP present.
“He continues to have my support,” said Mark Jenkinson, among the 2019 Tory intake, crediting Johnson for Britain’s vaccination roll-out and booster campaign. “Britain is one of the first countries to emerge from the pandemic and this achievement cannot be overlooked.”
The Labour Party also isn’t yet going in for the kill, preferring to wait until Gray’s conclusions before any attempt to force a no confidence vote in the Commons - though leader Keir Starmer made his thinking clear enough.
“The party’s over, prime minister,” he said. “The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?”