Boris Johnson’s Partygate showdown: The future direction of British politics is at stake

Boris Johnson is coming up to the bat in the latest innings of the Partygate scandal. On Wednesday 22nd at 14:00, he is to make a live and televised appearance in front of the Commons Privileges Committee that is investigating one central question for the former Prime Minister’s political future: did he deliberately mislead Parliament over denials of covid-lockdown parties in Downing Street? Boris Johnson is not just at facing the prospect of a couple of hours of hostile questions; he risks being bowled out altogether. However, it is not just Johnson who will be monitoring the conditions of the wicket; Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both have a lot at stake in Johnson’s in-front-of-the-nation performance this week. Sunak’s ability to lead a unified conservative party into the next election, and Starmer’s ability to defeat them, could hinge on how the Privileges Committee resolves their Partygate inquiry. 


The question for Johnson is whether he attempts to change anyone’s view about his involvement in the illegal gatherings that resulted in over 100 police fines. It may well be the case that the public has made up its mind. Already issued with a fixed-penalty notice, alongside his wife, polling throughout last year indicated that the public thought Johnson should take responsibility for what happened in Downing Street under his watch. Whether he tries he win over the public or not, the former Prime Minister will want to be winning over his own constituents, because this inquiry could give them an opportunity to chuck him out of Parliament early. If the Privileges Committee chooses to suspend Johnson from the House for 10 days or longer, then a recall petition could see him face a by-election in his seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Despite being reselected by the Conservative Party to fight the constituency again at the next election, his 7,000-vote majority there is vulnerable to Labour’s current poll leads and there is speculation that Johnson will find a safer seat to contest at the next election. However, that does not protect Johnson from the risk of losing a by-election before then, which contributes to what is his biggest political headache: that his chances of retaking the top job from Rishi Sunak are sliding, and that this inquiry might be the nail in the coffin. 


From his final words at the Prime Ministerial dispatch box, “Hasta la vista, baby!”, to his will-he-won’t-he leadership bid following Liz Truss’s resignation, Boris Johnson’s desire to come back to Downing Street had not been difficult to miss. This week’s appearance in front of the Privileges Committee provides a major problem for Johnson: questions over his conduct will remind Conservative MPs, and the public, why they abandoned his leadership last year, and the additional risk of a returned-Prime Minister Johnson losing his seat in a by-election would be a look that his backbench colleagues will be eager to avoid. Nonetheless, Sunak is clearly worried by Johnson’s popularity among a contingent in the party, and indeed there is talk of giving Johnson a safe seat to guarantee his loyalty.  If Johnson wants to rebuild his credibility, his team has already indicated that they think his best bet is to trash the credibility of the Privileges Committee, a strategy that might come to dominate his contributions on Wednesday. Keir Starmer’s appointment of once-Partygate investigator Sue Gray as his new chief of staff has handed Johnson a lifeline in this endeavor. Even though Gray’s report is completely disconnected from the one being conducted by MPs, Johnson has already used her link with the Labour Party to tarnish the credibility of the Committee’s investigation. Johnson might also choose to use his appearance at Partygate Committee to remind his audience of the successes of his premiership. Johnson has proved adept at using public appearances for particular causes as a means to opine on a wide range of topics. At the beginning of the month, he used a speech at a soft power summit to remind people of the successes of his government’s vaccine rollout, his leading support for Ukraine, and his narrower polling gap with Labour while he was in charge. If Johnson still hopes to topple Sunak this side of the election, expect these talking points, targeted at Conservative MPs, to resurface on Wednesday. 


The current Prime Minister’s conundrum is arguably more acute than his predecessor’s. With his Deputy, Dominic Raab, dogged by bullying allegations, and his own motives questioned after his appointment of Gavin Williamson and reappointment of Suella Braverman, polling suggests that his government and party are losing the battle against Labour for public belief in their integrity, as polling showing that almost two-thirds of the public believing that the country was not being run competently or with integrity. Sunak may hope to offset a leadership challenge and see Boris Johnson dragged down by the continued attention around Partygate generated by his televised oral evidence session, but Sunak cannot afford to have Partygate remain on the news agenda. For no other reason than its devastating impact on the Conservative Party’s image of integrity in government. Most worrying of all for the Prime Minister is that, just as his own personal poll ratings have rebounded by over 10 points (but remain in the negative), the continued presence of Partygate in the headlines offers Labour the opportunity to remind the public that Sunak was also implicated and fined during the scandal. 


Sunak must strike a balance in how he responds to the Privileges Committee inquiry. However poorly Johnson is deemed to have performed on Wednesday, he will continue to be backed by a resolute contingent of MPs, who Sunak will need to keep on-side if he wants to present a unified party to the country at the next election. Given that Johnson allies Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg both now present television shows for TalkTV and GB News respectively, Conservative Paty divisions will be harder than ever to conceal. The Prime Minister has already stated that he will not whip MPs to vote against suspending Boris Johnson from the Commons; now Sunak must be cautious not to appear too eager to exacerbate his predecessor’s political woes, for that may only alienate Johnson’s high-profile and potentially troublesome allies on the backbenches.


For Keir Starmer, the return of Partygate and the prospective return of Conservative infighting could not come at a better time. Although Labour’s position in the polls remains steadily ahead of the Conservative’s, Starmer might be feeling threatened by a string of successes that the government has had. The last fortnight alone has seen Sunak celebrating a new Illegal Migration Bill that has seen voter trust rise in the Conservatives on the subject, a budget in which the public broadly agree with the five headline measures, and a new pay deal agreed with the British Medical Association. What Starmer wants to come out of Johnson’s oral evidence session is both for Partygate to continue to haunt Sunak and for Johnson’s leadership ambitions to be quashed. Another round of controversy over the Downing Street parties during lockdown will help slow the political momentum that Sunak has been building in recent weeks. Given that Boris Johnson appears more popular than Sunak in the crucial Red Wall seats than Labour needs to win back at the next election, he will be hoping that Johnson is unable to answer the mountain of evidence that the inquiry has collected against the former Primer Minister.  What happens at the Privileges Committee on Wednesday, however, does not come without risk for the Labour leader. As he listens in, he will not want to hear Sue Gray will not be a name he wants to hear, despite the fact that her Partygate reports were damning for Jonnson’s premiership. If her appointment as the Labour Party’s chief of staff becomes the story, then it risks muddying Starmer’s work to rebuild Labour’s own credibility for government.


The question for the seven MPs on the Privileges Committee is who knew what, and when, in relation to the lockdown parties in Downing Street, and whether that means Johnson misled Parliament as Prime Minister. It is a question that, with his appearance on Wednesday, will be clouded by the theatre and the political maneuvering that is taking place before the general election in 2024. Who will lead the Conservative Party into the next election, and how effectively? Will Starmer be able to maintain his party’s new popularity and public faith in their integrity? These questions are yet to be resolved in British politics and they do, in part, hinge on Boris Johnson’s performance in front of the Privileges Committee, and on what judgement those seven MPs pass on him in the coming months. There are always winners and losers in politics, and this time around will be no exception.


Featured Image: Number 10 on Flickr

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