Partygate: Will Boris Johnson dodge another bullet?

The long-awaited report into the Downing Street gatherings looks set to be published this week.

Partygate: Will Boris Johnson dodge another bullet when Sue Gray publishes report? Parliament TV
How scathing will the report be of the Prime Minister?

There was a time, not so long ago when the publication of the Sue Gray report into Whitehall parties during a period of Covid restrictions would have led to everyone in Downing Street retreating to the bunker, eyes closed, fingers in ears and hard hats on head.

Such is the way that events have played out in recent weeks, Boris Johnson will be fully braced for a mauling at the hands of the senior civil servant, but will feel that he can ride out any storm and parliamentary brouhaha that accompanies publication.

There are times during this episode when the seriousness of the issues have been lost in the fog of politics and process. First, the Prime Minister was under the cosh and, for once, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was doing some real damage with some flick-knife performances at the dispatch box. I will come back to Sir Keir later.

Then there was the announcement of the probe by Sue Gray and a sense that her reputation for taking no prisoners might send the Prime Minister, metaphorically speaking, to jail. The Metropolitan Police, who could have chosen to probe a rash of stories about politicians and civil servants living it up, chose not to. And then they intervened with the consequence that it derailed Gray’s probe and brought Johnson some much-needed breathing space.

No10 Downing StGov.uk
Johnson will be braced for a mauling when Gray publishes her report.

The Met have not covered themselves in glory with the way in which they have handled this. But their investigations, initiated in part by what Sue Gray uncovered, led to the Prime Minster being issued with a fixed penalty notice, a move that allowed the charge of ‘criminal’ to be hurled.

What do we know? Well, 126 fines have been issued to a total of 83 people. It appears that of the those Gray plans to name, no-one has objected to the inclusion for their being named in the report, which is now expected to be published this week. It is also reported that she has in her possession 510 images which could prove very damaging indeed if they are all published.

Given the extent of the fines, it is safe to assume her final word will be scathing and will build on the damaging conclusion in her interim report about “failures of leadership and judgement”.

And yet, for all the scale of law breaking suggests conclusively that senior officials really did smugly believe they could get away with it, my sense now is that the political damage to the Prime Minster might be limited. In short, he is likely to dodge this bullet which once looked almost fatal.

The cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine has substantially buried Partygate. This no longer feels like the tipping point issue that leads Tory MPs to conclude they must take him out. The government trails Labour in most polls and the local election results were bad for the Tories. But when you factor in the normal swings and roundabouts of mid-term in a government’s life, the position is bad but in no sense irretrievable.

A bungled handling of the current squeeze in household incomes is now more likely to be the issue that would bury the Prime Minister. The discontent among Tory MPs is now focused on seeing off a national rebellion from an electorate genuinely worried about the current assault on their living standards.

The element of farce over Partygate and the Gray report continued over the weekend. It was revealed she had met with the Prime Minister pre-publication in a move that seems to me to give ammunition to those who might charge her with driving a coach and horses through being seen to be independent.

The frankly laughable performance yesterday of the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi over who called the meeting and what was discussed seemed to me to add insult to injury. His line of defence was that he did not know anything but was sure everything would be published in full and that Gray was a woman of integrity who would be robust.

The story of the Gray-Johnson meeting was known in Downing Street before Zahawi was sent on a Sunday morning tour of the TV studios. It appears they did not brief him or that he did not bother to ask Number 10 what had happened. Either way, the government looks ridiculous.

When publication comes, expect more Prime Ministerial apologies and perhaps the odd civil servant who will fall on their sword, playing the role of sacrificial lamb.

The one remaining danger of all of this for the Prime Minister is rather paradoxically what happens to Sir Keir Starmer. He is the subject of a police probe and has pledged to resign if he is found to have broken the law. 

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Sir Keir Starmer is facing a police investigation.

If Starmer is forced out, his principled stance will be thrown back in the Prime Minister’s face. It would buttress the view that Johsnon is a man for whom honour and principle are afterthoughts.

The Prime Ministerial brass neck is pretty robust. For now. He looks likely to evade the ultimate censure of Conservative MPs, for the moment at least. He lives to fight another day. But I still believe his date with resignation will come and that someone else will lead the Tories into the next election.