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It’s been a sizzling start to 2022 with the government coming under fire - yet again - for COVID-19 rule-breaking. Unlike the previous allegations before Christmas, this new ‘partygate’ scandal is a serious threat to the survival of the prime minister. Even more worrying for him, there has been an exclusive in the Daily Telegraph today, which reported how on April 16 2021, while the UK was again under strict COVID-19 restrictions and in public mourning following the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, No. 10 held two parties.

Meanwhile, Omicron-related hospital admissions have not been as high as expected, which is particularly encouraging news for the prime minister, who chose not to bring restrictions in over the festive period, in contrast to his counterparts across the devolved administrations. This week has also seen the self-isolation period cut to five days - welcome news for many.

Our blog this week examines the ‘partygate’ scandal in detail and how this presents a serious threat to Boris Johnson’s leadership. We’ll look at Sue Gray’s investigation, sentiment amongst ministers and details of new polling, giving Labour a 10-point lead - and what this could mean for Johnson’s future prospects.

Operation ‘partygate’

The Metropolitan police confirmed on Monday evening that they would investigate revelations that Boris Johnson’s staff organized a “bring your own booze” gathering in the Downing Street garden during lockdown in May 2020 — an event the prime minister and his wife were alleged to have attended. This preceded an email from Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, which was leaked to ITV, displaying a full invite to Downing Street staff. The rules at the time (how could any of us forget?), banned individuals from meeting more than one person socially, outdoors.

To put the seriousness of this into context, it is claimed that around 40 staff gathered in the Downing Street garden that day, eating picnic food and drinking alcohol, whilst the public was being extra cautious and health services dealt with the onslaught of patients with COVID-19.

Boris Johnson, during Wednesday’s PMQ’s faced, without question, the hardest day of his political career. Apologising to MPs and the public for attending the party, he claimed that the event was "technically within the rules", but admitted that he should have realised how it would look to the public. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (being the lawyer he is), was forensic in his examination, repeatedly calling on Johnson to quit in what he labelled "ridiculous" lies and excuses. Opposition backbench MPs also piled on the pressure for Johnson to quit. Throughout the session, Johnson stayed on message and stressed that he would not comment on any allegations related to the scandal until the conclusion of the investigation, which is being led by civil service inquisitor, Sue Gray.

First the good news for Boris Johnson. So far his cabinet has publicly backed him following his address on Wednesday. In addition, currently, no cabinet minister has resigned from their post. The biggest concern to the PM would have been chancellor Rishi Sunak’s eight-hour silence after Johnson’s statement on Wednesday. Interestingly, Sunak issued a carefully worded tweet that pointedly only endorsed the PM keeping his job until the investigation is complete and the report is published. It is widely rumoured that Rishi’s silence was as a result of his musing whether he was going to relinquish his support for Johnson and resign from the government, in protest. To compound Johnson’s troubles even further, the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross became the first senior Tory to say that Johnson should resign. As of Thursday morning, this was reciprocated - with 26 out of 31 Scottish Tory MSPs - going on record in support of the Scottish Conservative leader’s position.

As of today, it seems that things are looking even worse for the prime minister. An exclusive in the Daily Telegraph today,  reported how on April 16 2021, while Britain was again under strict COVID-19 restrictions and in public mourning following the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, No. 10 held two leaving parties. One was for James Slack, Johnson’s director of communications and another, for one of the PM’s personal photographers. According to witnesses, staff danced in the No. 10 basement to music DJ’ed by a special adviser, one attendee broke baby Wilfred’s swing set and another was handed an empty suitcase and sent off to fill it with bottles of booze. Downing Street has stated that the prime minister was not at No. 10 on April 16 and had departed for Chequers the previous evening. Nevertheless, these are serious accusations, which were made all the worse, when pictures were once again circulated of the Queen sitting alone at HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. 

Where now for Boris?

The events boil down to three key flash-points that will decide whether the prime minister will survive the scandal. First, will be Gray’s report into the allegations and how damaging this ends up being for the PM. The wording of the report will be crucial in how far she decides to go against the prime minister, which will, in turn have a direct impact on the steps that cabinet ministers and Tory MPs opt to take. Second - and perhaps the most significant - will be whether Rishi Sunak decides enough is enough and chooses to resign from the Cabinet, which will undoubtedly be linked to Gray’s report.

Given Sunak’s popularity, a decision from him would be likely to trigger a flood of no-confidence letters to the 1922 committee chairman, Graham Brady. Lastly, there is also the possibility that if no-confidence in Johnson reaches the threshold of 54 before the publication of the report, this will see him facing a vote on his position. Currently a number of prominent Tory MPs have submitted letters including; Douglas Ross, Sir Roger Gale, William Wragg, Caroline Nokes and Andrew Bridgen. According to estimates, 30 letters of no confidence have been submitted. This is certainly one to keep a close eye on in the coming days.

Furthermore, what could also be significant to Johnson’s future prospects, is the current electoral outlook for the Tories. Recent YouGov polling for The Times has given Labour a 10-point lead, resulting in the biggest gap in eight years. The poll (which was conducted before Wednesday’s apology), found that six in 10 voters believed that Johnson should resign, including 38 percent of those who voted Tory in the last election.

The Conservatives historically have been ruthless in removing leaders when the electoral landscape looks detrimental to their chances of winning power. Therefore a close eye should be kept on how Tory MPs react over the coming weeks.

Bills Crisis

It’s not just the “party gate” scandals that are enveloping the prime minister at the moment.   Earlier in the week the PM and chancellor held meetings with officials to take steps to reduce energy bills for those struggling in the UK.  It is expected that energy bills are set to soar to £2,000 for the average household when the price cap is adjusted in April. Johnson last week ruled out VAT reductions on energy bills, citing that it was a blanket- wide approach.

This is an issue that certainly presents the PM and chancellor with a number of issues, when viewed alongside the cost of living crisis and against the backdrop of the PM’s “levelling up” agenda. Labour has also looked to capitalise on the issue, by calling for a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas producers, to fund measures to ease the cost of living squeeze.

Their proposals would include a £600m contingency fund to support struggling firms and energy-intensive industries, which may force the PM and chancellor to act, causing this to escalate into a serious political issue for the Tories.

A look ahead

All eyes in the next week will be on whether the prime minister will survive the ‘partygate’ scandal. The timing of Sue Gray’s report will be a critical factor in determining Johnson’s future, alongside his depleting support within the Tory party.

In other news, British lawmakers on Thursday, were warned by MI5 about Christine Lee acting as a Chinese agent. Parliamentary records show that Lee, a solicitor, has donated money to Labour MP Barry Gardiner, formerly the party’s international trade spokesperson and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who was energy secretary at the time. 

In better news, on the COVID-19 front, it looks as if things are heading in the right direction. Professor David Heymann, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), suggested in a Chatham House online briefing recently,  that the UK was witnessing the disease become an ‘endemic’ and claimed how we are the closest to being out of the pandemic. It will be key to see how the government opts to manage the situation, whilst infection rates lower during the current turmoil that Boris Johnson’s leadership is facing.