An hour or so before Boris Johnson was due to fly back to the UK from Delhi on Friday evening – after a two-day trade mission to India – some electrifying news broke on Twitter. Anushka Asthana, ITV’s deputy political editor, had tweeted that “fines are landing into people’s inboxes relating to the garden event on May 20th 2020 – the BYOB [bring your own bottle] event – that Boris Johnson did go to”.
The trip to India had already been overshadowed by Partygate. The Tories had endured a terrible week in parliament and Johnson was facing a third inquiry into parties at No 10. Now British journalists who had accompanied the prime minister to India seized on the latest bombshell – and wanted responses.
Johnson was at a business reception – his last event of the trip – and his aides had been caught unaware by the news. The journalists asked if the prime minister had also been found and were hoping to put the question directly to Johnson himself on the long flight back to London. But during the journey they were told he would not be coming down the plane to chat, as is customary on such trips, because he was asleep.
Johnson had already been fined once, over the Easter recess, for attending his own birthday celebration in June 2020 in breach of lockdown rules, and had issued a grovelling apology to parliament on Tuesday before flying off to Delhi.
But the story that refuses to go away was taking off again. Could he survive a second fine? Would he make a second apology? How many more fines and apologies could there be?
Back in London, No 10 said he had not been finished again so far as anyone was aware – but it fell short of a categorical denial that one might come, or could already be in the post.
After this latest shambolic few days of the Johnson premiership, two things are now far clearer than they were last weekend. First, much as Johnson wants to draw a line under Partygate, everyone at Westminster now knows he will definitely not be able to do so any time soon. And second, more and more Tory MPs are losing faith in their leader, feeling they can no longer defend his behavior to their constituents.
As one party grandee commented on Wednesday, with local elections two weeks away: “Colleagues are just bored with it all. They are depressed that every morning they wake to confront their inboxes filled with all this hate about parties. They feel they can’t defend it to people any more and they don’t want to be associated with it.”
A former cabinet minister added on Friday that Johnson could stagger on until the autumn but it was clear he was on his way out. He had turned from an electoral asset to electoral liability. “There could be three or four more fines and three or four more apologies, then the Metropolitan police report, then the Sue Gray report, which will in all probability be very critical, and now we have a parliamentary report going on for months,” the minister said. “Then, Boris being Boris, he will screw other things up. There is no doubt where all this will end.”
On Tuesday, Johnson appeared still to believe that contrition over the birthday-party fine could get him through. Late that afternoon, he stood up in the Commons, wearing the most apologetic and humble face he could muster, and said sorry over and over again. “I make it absolutely clear that in no way do I minimize the importance of this fine,” was his answer to an intervention from the veteran MP Sir Bill Cash. “I am heartily sorry for my mistake, and I completely accept the decision of the police.”
But the period of prime ministerial contrition was very brief. A couple of hours later, after former Tory chief whip Mark Harper announced he could no longer support him, Johnson addressed a meeting of Conservative backbenchers on the 1922 Committee and appeared to have fully recovered.
Those present were struck by how suddenly the prime minister’s mood had improved. But they were not all cheered by his rediscovered good humour. “He just tried to crack a series of jokes,” said one former minister who was there. “It was like he was giving an after-dinner speech. There was no sign of the humility of hours earlier I don’t think he had thought about what he wanted to say and it didn’t go down well. By the end, he had lost the room. He said he was determined to get on with the job but it was as if his rule-breaking didn’t matter any more.”
The next day, at prime minister’s questions, there was an eerie absence of the normal supportive noise behind Johnson. Something had changed. “It was so noticeable,” said a Labor MP afterwards. “You could see his authority draining away.”
Labor was demanding that Johnson be referred to a Commons committee to determine whether he had knowingly misled the Commons over lockdown-breaking parties that he had previously denied had ever happened. As word of the Labor motion spread, Tory MPs became increasingly concerned at suggestions that No 10 would order them to block it. “There were loads of Tories in a complete state,” said a Labor frontbencher, “because they feared what their constituents would say if they voted to oppose another inquiry into rule-breaking. They kept saying ‘Owen Paterson, Owen Paterson’ and that No 10 had not learned its lesson.”
Aware of the unhappiness, the Tory whips and No 10 drew up a compromised plan that involved amending the Labor motion in order to push its start date back until after the after the Met report into parties has been published. But even that was too much for many Tories, who had lost patience with being told how to react to, and vote on, Partygate. They knew what they thought. Tory MPs milled round the Commons saying they wouldn’t play ball. It was a quiet revolt, but one that spoke volumes about the prime minister’s sudden loss of control over his troops in parliament.
One former minister said his constituency chairman had contacted him to say the issue should be examined by the Commons privileges committee, as Labor was demanding, so that all the details of advice to Johnson about parties and photographs could be flushed out and the full truth could become known. Several junior ministers threatened to resign. Another ex-minister said: “I told the whips ‘no way’ – I would not be there for the vote on Thursday whatever happened.’”
Frantic phone calls were held between London and Ahmedabad, where a tired and overheated Johnson had not been able to escape domestic events and feared a mass rebellion in his own parliamentary ranks. Then on Thursday morning, ministers put up the white flag and pulled the amendment, granting Tory MPs a free vote on the Labor motion. Later that day – without a single Tory opposing it – MPs approved the Labor motion to set up the extra inquiry.
Extraordinarily, it concluded by describing Johnson’s previous statements to parliament, in which he had denied being aware of parties taking place, as comments that “appear to amount to misleading the House”. And no Tory objected, while Steve Baker, one of the few to actually make it into the chamber, told the House: “The prime minister now should be long gone. The prime minister should just know the gig’s up.” Two days earlier he had publicly backed Johnson.
Labor was cock-a-hoop. Officials said they had succeeded in preventing the government, ahead of the local elections, from changing the agenda and luring them into traps over issues such as Priti Patel’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Keir Starmer had taken the high ground in his speech, focusing on trust in politicians and the future of democracy, to guard against accusations that he was politicizing Partygate. After the vote, however, he went down to the Strangers’ bar and bought everyone a drink, safe in the knowledge that Johnson would not escape the issue for many months to come if he remained in office.
That night on the BBC 10pm news, the lead item came from India and showed Johnson facing questions about the vote and the new Partygate inquiries. The second item featured the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in Washington, talking about the fine he had also received for breaching lockdown rules. So much for “getting on with the job”.
MPs are now assessing the effects all this is having on voters before the local elections on 5 May. Many Conservative MPs are waiting for the results before deciding whether to write letters expressing no confidence in Johnson to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee.
Another Tory grandee who had been on the campaign trail on Saturday said his impression was that the Conservative vote was holding fairly firm in many areas. But he noted that there was a “sizable minority” of Tory voters who were now saying: “Not while Boris is prime minister.” This number, he suggested, could be large enough to send Conservative councilors to defeat in some key areas and possibly, as a result, have the knock-on effect of bringing down the curtain on the Johnson premiership.