In his long political life as mayor of London for two terms, UK foreign minister, and now prime minister, Boris Johnson has faced countless crises and scandals.
Any of these might have been enough to bring down another politician, but Johnson has demonstrated an unparalleled ability to survive. Circumstances helped him in some cases, and his ability to escape accountability in others.
However, this ultimate survivor seems to be running out of luck. Ironically, what might bring him down is not a “British Watergate” but a “Downing Street Partygate”.
It is not a single party, but more than 12 that were held at Downing Street on different dates during 2020 and 2021 in violation of the lockdown rules imposed in the UK to fight Covid-19.
The most devastating was a party held in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 attended by dozens of employees, including Johnson himself, on a sunny day with wine and beer, while the rest of the British were forbidden from mixing with each other.
Another party was held on 16 April 2021 on the eve of the funeral service of the duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth.
Since the revelations of these parties, there has been a public outcry and a significant decline in Johnson’s popularity. According to opinion polls commissioned by the Observer newspaper, the popularity of Johnson is worse than that of former prime minister Theresa May when the ruling Conservative Party ousted her.
There is a growing number of Conservative MPs calling for Johnson to be ousted, and the bad news for him has got worse.
Former political adviser Dominic Cummings has accused Johnson of lying after No 10 denied the prime minister had been warned against allowing a “bring your own booze” party during the first lockdown.
Johnson admitted to parliament last week that he had attended drinks in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 but claimed he had not realised it was a social gathering.
Cummings, critical of Johnson since he left Downing Street, said Johnson had “waved aside” concerns about the gathering.
Writing in his blog, Cummings said some of Johnson’s advisers had warned him not to go ahead with the party because it would conflict with Covid-19 restrictions, but Johnson gave the green light anyway.
If Cummings’ allegations are confirmed, this means that Johnson lied to parliament when he said he had no prior knowledge of the party.
A Downing Street spokesman said it was “untrue” to say Johnson was “warned about the event,” adding that “as he said earlier this week, he believed implicitly that this was a work event. He has apologised to the House and is committed to making a further statement once the investigation concludes.”
Last week, Johnson said he went to the gathering for 25 minutes to thank the staff for their hard work.
However, Cummings, who worked at No 10 at the time of the party, has insisted Johnson “knew he was at a drinks party because he was told it was a drinks party and it was actually a drinks party.”
He wrote that the day was a “particularly intense shambles,” saying that Johnson’s principal private secretary (PPS) Martin Reynolds had sent out the email inviting 100 staff to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden,” but “a very senior official replied by email saying the invite broke the rules.”
“The PPS went to the official’s office, where they discussed it. The PPS declined to withdraw the invitation. I told the PPS the invite broke the rules.” Cummings claimed the PPS said he would “check with the PM if he’s happy for it to go ahead,” adding that “I am sure he did check with the PM.”
Cummings said he then challenged Johnson himself. “I said to the PM something like, ‘Martin’s invited the building to a drinks party, this is what I’m talking about, you’ve got to grip this madhouse.’”
But “the PM waved it aside.”
He said his account showed that “the PM lied to parliament about parties.”
Westminster Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Ian Blackford said Cummings was “a key witness” and should be interviewed by Sue Gray, the senior civil servant carrying out an inquiry into gatherings on government premises during Covid restrictions.
Cummings’ intervention comes after Conservative MPs spent the weekend canvassing public opinion on the prime minister, with some reporting anger. Speaking outside Downing Street, Conservative MP Steve Baker told reporters that “my constituents at the moment are about 60 to one against the prime minister.”
“What I would say is that I made my view very clear at the beginning of December: that there must be one rule for all.” The MP later added that “it was impossible to say” if Johnson would lead his party into the next general election.
Voices are rising from within the Conservative Party calling for Johnson to be ousted if it is proven that he lied to parliament regarding “Partygate.” Downing Street has also been criticised by ministers in an escalation of discontent about parties during the pandemic.
George Freeman, a science minister, said he was “shocked and flabbergasted” by revelations of Downing Street parties and added that stories of “boozy” gatherings in No 10 had caused “serious damage” to public trust in the government.
He questioned why some staff had been holding parties when members of the public “couldn’t see dying loved ones.”
In a letter to a constituent sent after Johnson’s appearance at prime minister’s questions last week, Freeman pointed the finger at the prime minister and senior aides for the gatherings, saying people in positions of power “shouldn’t seek to escape public responsibility or accountability.”
Powerful Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen became the fifth to publicly declare he has written to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which organises party leadership contests, to say he had no confidence in the prime minister.
Another Conservative MP, Damian Collins, said the number of letters he has received from his constituents about the Downing Street party in May 2020 was “in the hundreds” and “a lot of people are very angry.”
He told the BBC that “by far the clearest view” from party members in his constituency was that “we should give the PM the benefit of the doubt until we see what’s in Sue Gray’s report.”
Former minister Tim Loughton became the sixth Conservative MP to call on Johnson to resign, saying his position was “untenable”. Fifty-four Conservative MPs have to write to the 1922 Committee to trigger a vote.
The latest revelations also led to a backlash from opposition parties, which contrasted the behaviour of No 10 staff with pictures of the Queen sitting alone at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral due to Covid restrictions.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP are all calling for Johnson to resign after he admitted attending the drinks party during the lockdown in May 2020.
In a desperate attempt to draw attention away from “Partygate,” Downing Street has started what some have called “Operation Save Big Dog” or “Operation Red Meat,” which includes an overhaul of the government’s top team, providing financial aid to energy companies so that they do not raise gas and electricity prices, relieving pressure on hospitals, freezing the BBC license fee for two years, introducing stricter immigration policies, and the use of the army to prevent illegal refugees from crossing the channel.
Reports have suggested that home secretary Priti Patel is set to announce within weeks that the navy will be brought in to spearhead controversial “pushback” tactics to turn away refugee boats.
Downing Street hopes that this series of populist policies might ease the pressure on Johnson, but ultimately what will determine his fate is the Conservative Party. If Johnson is blamed, and if his popularity continues to decline, he will not be around for long.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.