Boris Johnson must wait for the ultimate inquiry into his behavior

LONDON — “Lucky f*cker” was how Boris Johnson was described by one of his opponents last week, and it seems the stars have once more aligned in his favor. 

A long-awaited report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into a series of parties at Downing Street and Whitehall landed Wednesday. Despite one of the most feared names in Whitehall laying bare the lurid details of raucous nights of booze and boogying for all to see, the report failed to land a killer blow. 

Gray spoke of “failures of judgment” which saw senior staff either allow or encourage rule-breaking events, for which she said leaders in government and the civil service “must bear responsibility.”

Yet the manner and timing of the Partygate reckoning make it unlikely this will come to pass. 

Gray managed to take the sting out of her own final verdict, since she was mainly left to repeat criticisms of the government she had made already in an interim report.

The drip-drip of information about social events held in Downing Street and the slow-burning investigations by Gray and the police over six months defused some of the allegations’ initial impact and MPs’ willingness to defenestrate Johnson. 

At one point in February, letters of no confidence were fluttering in to the 1922 committee — part of the process by which Conservative MPs can force a vote on removing a party leader. 

Now, as one Tory MP put it: “The critical mass of Conservatives, whether by calculation or because there isn’t a better idea, are sticking with him.”

They are willing to take a bet that it will all blow over by the next general election as constituents become impatient to move on.

Johnson appeared to tap into that sentiment at a press conference to address Gray’s findings, saying: “I have got to keep moving forward and the government has got to keep moving forwards.”

His footsoldiers — especially MPs in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour heartlands — have been heartened by the local election results, where they see reasons for optimism about the Conservative performance. 

An experienced Tory MP said: “There’s still a view around that suddenly he’ll become Super Boris again,” bolstered by Red Wall MPs who feel confident Labour is not making any headway in their backyards.

Boris Johnson must wait for the ultimate inquiry into his behavior
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak attend a gathering on the former’s birthday | UK Government via Getty Images

One former aide said MPs had “calmed down” because the local election results were not as bad as they could have been.

While there are still going to be uncomfortable moments to come for the prime minister — notably two by-elections in June and a probe into whether he misled parliament — the bulk of his MPs are now waiting for him to be tested, not by any review or inquiry, but at the ballot box. 

Some are encouraged by the new No. 10 operation, with one senior MP saying: “The tactical stuff, whether you approve of it or not, is working … They’re doing a better job of expectation management, and the exercise they did on Keir Starmer and Beergate was very effective” — a reference to allegations the Labour leader also broke lockdown rules.

This is by no means a consensus view, with a handful of MPs going over the top to suggest sticking with Johnson is a miscalculation. 

Conservative MP Stephen Hammond told Sky News: “A lot of colleagues today are perhaps realizing that unless something happens, we may not be able to win the next general election.”

Pollster James Johnson said those Conservatives defending the PM were at risk of “misinterpreting” the local elections, arguing that while there was no “Blair-style rout” if those patterns were replicated at a national level it would be enough to rob them of a majority. 

He added that although voters are “increasingly sick of” Partygate, the “brand damage has already been done” to the prime minister, with no clear sign of what might help him recover. 

“There’s no question it is the end of days,” said one former Cabinet minister, predicting if Johnson stayed he would bring the party down with him. 

Johnson’s plea to be allowed to get on with the job could also prove a hostage to fortune if he can’t do enough to ease the cost of living crisis. Most of his MPs believe that is a more severe threat than Partygate.

Not everyone is convinced by the new-look No. 10 either. Critical senior Tories argue Scott Morrison’s defeat in Australia undermines some of the playbook being used by Johnson’s advisers.

Johnson’s adviser David Canzini has worked closely with Lynton Crosby, the Australian election campaign consultant who has been a go-to adviser for the Conservatives in recent years. 

Another of his associates, Isaac Levido, who headed up Johnson’s election campaign, played a big part in getting the now-defeated Morrison elected as Australia’s PM. 

“They might not be such genius election-winners after all,” one former Cabinet minister said.