So at the end of Partygate — and that political party is now over with the publication of Sue Gray’s report — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his status, but not his place. Without a doubt, Johnson will now carry on without the rebound that defined him, but what matters to him is that he continues.
This continuation was ensured by some clever political maneuvering. Johnson may have proven himself better at it than at running the country. Most often retained FinancialTimes wrote in his op-ed Thursday that Johnson was “unfit to lead.” But he is there and he remains now in the position of leadership if not in the leadership.
Sue Gray’s report details the scenes in Downing Street when Johnson was telling the nation from a podium in Downing Street about the lockdown banning a meeting of more than two. Dozens of people gathered in Downing Street, often partying until 4 a.m., including more than 30 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. The report details excessive drinking, vomiting afterwards, wine spilling over printers and quarrels that turned physical, all spiced up with abuse of staff who came to clean up. The ethics officer brought a karaoke machine.
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Boris Johnson was at several of these gatherings. His defense is that it didn’t occur to him that he was breaking the rules by attending, let alone not stopping them. Few people seem to believe him, but he is looking at an encouraging figure: only 17 MPs from his party have publicly called for a no-confidence motion, far short of the 54 needed.
Two tactical moves appear to have pulled Johnson out of the choppy waters of a few weeks ago. One was to block publication of the Gray report at the height of the crisis. It was under the guise of a police investigation. Police eventually fined Johnson £50 for joining one of them. But that only offered a police-stamped legal view that the nation was only talking about a minor offense after all.
More importantly, it saved time. The dangerous moment has passed and other issues have taken over in the meantime, notably Ukraine. The Gray report released Wednesday offered grim details, but did not include any materially different information than previously known.
Second, the heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Rishi Sunak has been widely discredited after a well-publicized media campaign alleging tax wrongdoing by his wife. The allegations lacked a legal basis and they did not claim that there was a legal basis. But they painted a portrait of a minister whose wife is a foreign billionaire who saves millions in tax in Britain because she is a foreigner. The British public was then never going to want such a minister to become their new Prime Minister.
And so Johnson keeps his job, and he could announce with some relief that his job is now “to move on.”
Most Tory MPs neither publicly defended nor attacked Johnson. They are no longer under pressure to do either. But a threat above them, and above Johnson, still hasn’t entirely gone away. Johnson’s government managed Parliament, and even the police, but it didn’t quite manage the public. They are the ones who vote.
Obviously, the next factor taken into account in the intrigue of the palace is that the public has a proverbially short memory and that all of this would be forgotten at election time in 2024 if it could have been put on the back burner in just a few months This year. However, not all Conservative MPs are counting on that. One of them gave a strong warning to parliament that the Tories would lose the next election because of this. The Gray report quotes a senior official who said it looked like they “got away with it”. This may only be true until the next election.
A first test will take place well before 2024. Two by-elections are planned, in Wakefield in West Yorkshire and in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. A defeat here would make Tory MPs much more nervous than they already are. And Boris Johnson might not quite cover his wounds from Partygate as arrogantly as he seeks now.
– London Eye is a weekly column by CNBC-TV18’s Sanjay Suri, which provides insight into unusual affairs in and around London.