Boris Johnson was already facing the gravest crisis of his political career on Wednesday when, with a hangdog expression, he offered excuses in parliament for breaking the UK’s strict coronavirus lockdown by attending a party in his own back garden.
By Friday, things were only getting worse for the prime minister amid fresh revelations of lockdown-busting parties in the basement of 10 Downing Street and his staff drinking and dancing until dawn when the country was following draconian restrictions on social mixing.
This time Johnson was forced to make his apologies to the Queen, who only hours after the reported parties took place last April was pictured mourning at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, alone.
When Johnson faced the British electorate for the first time as prime minister just a few months before the pandemic upturned politics, many supporters had priced in a disregard for the rules most politicians feel obliged to heed. Some were even drawn to his well-documented flirtations with scandal, come as these did with a propensity to poke fun at himself.
In recent weeks, however, following a drawn-out stream of allegations played out in the media concerning a string of lockdown parties, he has been forced to recognise that the jokes are wearing thin.
As bookmakers slashed the odds of Johnson being forced out, and opinion polls showed trust in his leadership cratering, political commentators have wondered whether this scandal was one too far. Rishi Sunak, chancellor, and Liz Truss, foreign secretary, are thought to be waiting in the wings as potential successors, among others.
“I think he’s in serious trouble this time,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary’s university in London and author of The Conservative party: from Thatcher to Cameron. “It’s not just about him. A lot of his colleagues could put up with his fall from grace if it didn’t impact on their own chances. They’re very worried.”
Johnson, a former journalist who was London mayor and then foreign secretary before succeeding Theresa May as prime minister, has proved a master of chicanery.
This time, however, it was hard to wriggle free. A leaked emailed invitation to a “bring your own booze” party sent out to 100 staff by his private secretary in May 2020, when draconian restrictions were in place, was substantiated by numerous attendees.
“I know millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the past 18 months,” he told parliament when offering his regrets. “I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
Therein lies the rub. One reason voters were drawn to Johnson originally was that he appeared more open and at ease about his own transgressions than other politicians. But the latest, which came when most of the population was sticking to the letter of the law even as family members died in isolation, smacked of hypocrisy.
Johnson’s excuse, that he thought the party was a “work event,” met derision from Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party and a former prosecutor, who accused him of treating the public with “contempt”.
The fallout has been explosive amid a flurry of previous allegations about corruption and his handling of the pandemic that in the UK cost 150,000 lives, Johnson’s own persistent denials, and a burgeoning mutiny among backbenchers. The economic context is also grim, with the cost of living rising and tax hikes on the way.
Voters fired a warning shot at a by-election last month in one of the party’s hitherto safest seats, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive Conservative majority. This week the party was trailing Labour by 10 points in the polls with Johnson’s own ratings now far below Starmer’s.
It has been a swift reversal. Back in 2019 when parliament was paralysed by the fallout from the EU referendum, Johnson was backed by the party as the man to rescue their brand and “get Brexit done” for fear they might be out of power for years. Even those who disapproved held their noses in the hope that his charisma on the stump would help engineer a turnround, and it did.
Digging the knife in last week, Dominic Cummings, his estranged former adviser who has likened the prime minister, for his indecision, to a shopping trolley swinging from aisle to aisle, reversed the logic behind his ascent.
“If the trolley is left smashing around for another two years, the Tories could not only lose but be so discredited they are out for a decade,” he wrote on a blog post.
That fear now weighs on Conservative MPs, five of whom have publicly called for Johnson’s resignation. Whether that happens depends partly on Sue Gray, a senior civil servant charged with investigating the circumstances behind the government parties. Johnson has appealed for patience until Gray’s findings are made public, gambling that she will not censure him directly.
It is not easy to remove a sitting Conservative prime minister. For it to happen, 54 party members would first have to call a no-confidence vote. A majority would then have to back it. The party would then go through the process of choosing a new prime minister.
“There’s torment in the party, no doubt. Your gut tells you the man must go,” said Ed Costelloe, who runs Grassroots Conservatives, a party pressure group.
On Friday, he was totting up the results of a survey of ordinary members. About 60 per cent backed Johnson to stay, with the remainder seeking his resignation. Among the public, polls show nearly two-thirds of voters want him out.
Costelloe said he was on the fence, worried like many Conservatives that there was no guaranteed successor with the stardust that Johnson until very recently appeared to have with voters. “It may be a case of better the devil you know,” he said.