It was supposed to be Boris Johnson’s judgment week, but after more twists and turns than a Formula 1 grand prix, he ended the week locked in his Checkers campaign retreat, his premiership safe – for the moment.
Dozens of Tory MPs are awaiting the verdict from Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating alleged anti-lockdown parties in Downing Street, before deciding to push for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
With his report apparently embroiled in a police investigation, Tory backbenchers have had to come to their own conclusions, and Johnson’s allies believe many will choose to let him fight.
“I think there’s a 55 per cent chance he survives,” said one supporter, although they called for a staff release in No 10 so Johnson could start afresh.
This is not what it looked like on Tuesday morning when Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick electrified Westminster during an appearance at the London assembly.
Having repeatedly refused to implicate his force in this most toxic political scandal, Dick confirmed that his force would now launch an investigation into the Downing Street parties.
Johnson had been warned, but chose not to tell his cabinet at their weekly meeting on Tuesday. Trapped in the cabinet room without their phones, ministers were among the last people to hear the news on their way out.
What followed was an unedifying and confusing 72 hours, which began with the Met suggesting it had no objection to Gray releasing his report in full, and a frenzy of speculation that the report was to be released imminently, but ended Friday with no sign of the report, and an official statement admitting that police had asked him to make “minimal reference” to the eight events they are investigating.
And in the void, Johnson and his allies spent their time fighting back harshly. He has met wavering MPs to hear their political demands, and Downing Street’s planning ‘grid’ is filled with trips and announcements designed to show him he is continuing to deliver on ‘the people’s priorities’.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Johnson was loud and defiant, insisting he could not anticipate the Met inquiry and highlighting his achievements in government.
Tory MPs roared their approval, repeatedly shouting “More!” at a deafening volume. Johnson offered a new line of attack against Labor leader Keir Starmer, accusing him of being “a lawyer, not a leader”.
A Westminster veteran later pointed out that the Conservative Party continued to cheer Margaret Thatcher on in the final days of her premiership, almost until they forced her out of office.
But some of Johnson’s ragtag supporters lobbied their colleagues by sharing a grainy 1990 Daily Express front page lamenting Thatcher’s downfall with the headline ‘What did they do?’ (apparently forgetting that by abandoning a deeply unpopular leader, the Tories managed to win a fourth general election in 1992 under John Major.)
In a line that appeared to be aimed at his own MPs, Johnson claimed Starmer “wants me out” – a nod to those backbench MPs worried about their re-election prospects.
Labor MPs then hit back on Twitter, calling Johnson a “liar, not a leader” – language they are prevented by convention from using in the House of Commons.
Starmer took issue with Johnson’s statement to MPs that Covid guidelines ‘were completely followed in No 10’ – and that he had been ‘repeatedly assured’ there were no parties – with the facts that had since emerged. He again called on Johnson to resign.
As Johnson’s honesty on partygate came into question, new evidence emerged about his alleged role in allowing the Nowzad charity to evacuate animals from Afghanistan.
Emails released by the Foreign Affairs Committee showed Foreign Office officials suggesting the PM had approved the controversial airlift, at a time when life and death decisions were being made over the British troops who should help to leave Kabul.
The Prime Minister dismissed the claims as “total rhubarb”, but committee chairman Tom Tugendhat – who has reviewed his credentials as a potential leadership candidate – is unlikely to drop the issue.
As Gray continued to argue with lawyers and the Met over what might be released, Johnson slipped away for a visit to Wales on Thursday. The resulting photos were reminiscent of carefully selected shots from the 2019 general election campaign: an upbeat prime minister surrounded by smiling workers wearing hard hats.
That will be Johnson’s approach in the coming days: look busy – preferably away from number 10 – look serious and focus on pressing political issues, like the war in Ukraine.
The publication of Michael Gove’s upgrade white paper, now expected next week, will allow the government to focus on its domestic reform program, largely set aside since partygate.
The question for Tory MPs will be whether Johnson should now have time to try to recover his reputation and rebuild their party’s standing in the polls, or if he is irrevocably damaged.
A deputy ridiculed his colleagues saying he was waiting for Gray’s verdict. “What is she going to say?” Three words: ‘It’s a shitshow.’ Why do you need to wait for this? ” they said.
Johnson’s supporters hope that with each passing day the shocking details of the anti-lockdown parties will fade from the public mind – helped by support from right-wing newspapers. The front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mail, following the announcement of Johnson’s 2020 birthday party, railed against “a nation that has lost all sense of proportion”.
This week’s revelation that Johnson celebrated his birthday in Downing Street in June 2020, with up to 30 people singing around the cabinet table, did not change the dial for his supporters in the media.
Nor were Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns’ much-derided attempts to defend what had happened. “It wasn’t a premeditated, organized party,” Burns said. “He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake.”
But a disillusioned Tory MP, who once backed the Prime Minister, suggested that no policy or personnel changes in No 10 were likely to win over the public, no matter how much time passed.
They pointed to a widely shared and heartbreaking Sky News clip of a man called Richard Macvicar, who lost his parents and sister to Covid, saying: ‘I would have loved 10 minutes to say ‘ta ra’ to members of my family.”
“Some people might be ready to forget,” the MP said. “But these people who have suffered terribly feel very differently.”