Boris Johnson has three hurdles to clear in relation to rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during Coronavirus – or “alleged gatherings on Government premises during Covid restrictions”, to use the title of Sue Gray’s interim report.
The first was the Metropolitan Police’s investigation. Last week, it announced that it had concluded its enquiries and has issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people over events on eight separate dates. The Prime Minister received one fine only – for walking in on and staying at a surprise birthday event over which he claims no prior knowledge.
Since the police haven’t disclosed the reasons for their decisions, we have no idea why relatively junior staff who attended these events received fixed penalty notices, why Johnson was given only one, and why Simon Case, the Head of the Civil Service, received none at all.
I will spare readers a Holmesian probe of who may have attended which gatherings when; whether an event might have been within the rules at one point in time and not at another; under what circumstances someone who enters and leaves an event may not actually have been attending it – and so on.
“Junior staff were encouraged to come forward and fess up, having been told at the time that the events were within the rules. It’s unfair that they should be punished while their seniors and the politicians shelter behind lawyers,” one Number Ten staffer told me yesterday.
But for all the one-law-for-them and another etc, and the police’s silence over their workings, the single fine left the Prime Minister in a durable position – at least as far as Conservative MPs were concerned. Most do not believe that he should quit for being surprised with cake, or without it, whichever it may have been, on a single occasion.
Furthermore, a critical mass of them seem to have concluded that Keir Starmer is weak, Labour unconvincing, that the English local election results weren’t really as bad as all that, and that Johnson has a chance of turning it all round by 2024. The Ukraine war is another factor prayed in aid.
However, yesterday’s leaked photos will have a certain impact, as they were always bound to do. I doubt they will change the minds of many voters one way or the other. But they will reinforce the anger, both genuine and opportunist, of Johnson’s enemies and critics.
If it walks like a party and quacks like a party, then it’s a party, they say. The Prime Minister will doubtless argue from the dispatch box that Lee Cain’s leaving event, at which the photos were taken, was nothing more or less than workers saying farewell to a colleague, and raising their glasses to wish him well.
Downing Street somehow got itself into a tangle over who called a meeting between Johnson and Gray, and seems to be nervous that she will be much more critical of the Prime Minister than some expected. Her report is the second hurdle.
Johnson can take comfort from the condition of his internal enemies, who were dismayed by him receiving only a single fine, concluded that he was off the hook for the moment, and are worried that if they succeed in triggering a confidence ballot, he could win it – after which the rules bar another challenge for a year.
And he will be encouraged by the state of his external opponents, too. The police investigation into the event that Keir Starmer attended in Durham has taken the wind out of Labour’s sails. No wonder it’s the Liberal Democrats and not the officlal Opposition who are calling for an inquiry into the Met’s decisions.
However, many Tory MPs have been waiting for Gray’s report and it is certainly capable of sparking a ballot. If he survives it, a third hurdle will loom: a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over the parties or social events or whatever you want to call them.
Our last survey found that 59 per cent of Conservative member respondents believe that “the controversy about staff gatherings in Downing Street is being overblown by the media and is not important to most voters”. Thirty-eight per said otherwise.
I suspect that these proportions won’t have changed very much, but that those who hold both views will hold them more intensely. A majority of Party members want to move on: there is a war in eastern Europe and a cost of living crisis, after all.
But for better or worse British politics is stuck with this post-Covid saga until autumn at the earliest – unless a coup suddenly carries Johnson off.