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Boris Johnson tries to shift the focus from partygate

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Boris Johnson told a packed House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon that the time had come to “move on” after ‘partygate’ now that Sue Gray’s investigation into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street had ended.

The prime minister’s MPs appeared to be heeding that advice, with any sense of a mutiny receding after the publication of Gray’s long-awaited report.

But questions around whether the general public has moved on may be answered next month in two critical by-elections in Devon and West Yorkshire, both in seats previously held by Johnson’s ruling Conservative party.

Downing Street was apprehensive as Johnson waited for Gray’s report, long billed as a document that could spell the end of his premiership. Reports attributed to those briefed on Gray’s thinking, suggested that it would be so “damning” that Johnson would have to quit.

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Johnson on Wednesday even refused to deny that he had tried to dissuade the senior civil servant from publishing her final report earlier this month.

But once the 37-page document, along with photographs, arrived in Johnson’s inbox the overall mood in senior Tory circles turned to one of relief.

Although Gray criticised failures of leadership for the culture of illegal partying in Downing Street while the country was under strict Covid lockdown rules, she did not name Johnson personally.

Nor, inexplicably to many at Westminster, did Gray complete her investigation into the so-called “Abba party”, which took place in Johnson’s Downing Street flat on the night of former chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ departure in November 2020. Some government aides described it as “a whitewash”.

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For months, Number 10 has been braced for a backlash from Tory MPs following the report’s publication, and was watching nervously to see if 54 would submit letters stating that they no longer had confidence in the prime minister, triggering a vote on his leadership.

Boris Johnson at a gathering in Downing Street on November 13 2020 © UK Government

But as Wednesday ended it was hard to discern fresh momentum among rebel Conservative MPs. Johnson, dubbed the “greased piglet” by former prime minister David Cameron, appeared to have escaped yet again.

Gray painted a wild picture of life inside Downing Street when the rest of the UK was under strict lockdown rules: raucous gatherings, drunken fights, drinking to excess, red wine spilled on a wall, a broken children’s swing, and a dismissive attitude towards cleaners and security staff.

Page by page, the report outlined not only how illegal parties were taking place but also that senior figures knew they would be bending or breaking the rules.

Downing Street staff discussed how to conceal drinking inside the building, with one official telling people not to “walk around waving bottles of wine” in case they were seen.

Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s former private secretary, talked to a colleague about how staff “seem to have got away with” a boozy party in the Downing Street garden.

The report revealed details of a dizzying array of gatherings. At one on June 18 2020 there was “alcohol, food and music” with a karaoke machine provided by Helen MacNamara, the mandarin responsible for Whitehall ethics.

“There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals,” the report said. “One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals.” The last member of staff left this gathering at 3.13am. 

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak at a gathering in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street for the prime minister’s birthday on June 19 2020 © UK Government

The report’s portrayal of a Bacchanalian culture in Number 10 while millions of people were largely locked down in their homes could still prove politically damaging for Johnson in the long term. But some of its conclusions were helpful for the prime minister.

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For example, Gray confirmed that Johnson was not aware in advance of the gathering to mark his 56th birthday on June 19 2020, for which he received a fixed-penalty notice.

Gray also ruled that it was “not appropriate or proportionate” to investigate the gathering on November 13 2020, the so-called Abba party, in Johnson’s private flat because the Metropolitan Police force had begun work on its own inquiry.

When the prime minister stood at the despatch box to give a statement on the report in the wake of its publication, he was initially contrite. But that soon changed. He went on to attack Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, dubbing him “Sir Beer Korma” because of allegations that he had also broken Covid lockdown laws.

Johnson also repeated earlier claims that he did not know the extent of parties in Downing Street. At a subsequent press conference he insisted that he had only learnt of some details by reading Gray’s report that morning.

Many Tory MPs supported their leader, echoing his comments that it was time to “move on” and focus on more pressing issues, such as the cost of living crisis.

At a closed-door meeting of backbench MPs on Wednesday evening, Johnson was cracking jokes, telling them that Britain would not have won the second world war if alcohol had been banned in Number 10 in the 1940s.

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However, backbencher Jonathan Gullis said that the PM “struck the right tone throughout” with sincere apologies to colleagues.

“The meeting was relatively calm, but there was a growing sense of weariness over the matter,” said another Conservative MP.

There was criticism from a small number of Tory MPs, but most had already made their dislike of Johnson public in recent months. They included Tobias Ellwood, who warned that the Conservative party would lose the next general election if it continued on its current trajectory.

One new rebel was Julian Sturdy, a backbencher who called for Johnson to resign: “This is clearly a time when we cannot have any doubt about the honesty, integrity and personal character of the prime minister,” he wrote in a statement.

But despite the rumbling dissent, the rebels lack a coherent philosophy or obvious candidate to replace Johnson.

As one Tory MP said, the latest revelations lacked a “silver bullet” to fatally undermine Johnson’s prospects.

“There are several MPs privately opposed to Johnson but the question is are they properly organised? Are they managing to co-ordinate in any discernible form?,” said a senior Conservative.

“It takes a lot to actually remove a prime minister.”

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