Here perhaps is the most damning statement on the state of British politics. The long awaited Sue Gray report into the partygate affair confirms in detail that a culture of indifference to, tolerance of and even instigation of Covid breaches ran from top to bottom in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street – but with its publication, it looks increasingly clear that the prime minister is off the hook.
Johnson has been fined for one lockdown breach and has been confirmed to have been present at several others. Close political aides and civil servants not only organized illegal events which he attended, but warned each other not to get caught lest it create a “comms problem”. Senior civil servants also saw events taking place and averted their gaze. The events detailed in the report amount to a sustained repudiation by Johnson’s administration of the basic principle that lawmakers must obey the laws they pass.
These were draconian rules, graphically invoked and harshly enforced on others. This was Johnson’s Downing Street and he set the tone. While declaring in parliament that he takes responsibility for what happened, it is his senior staff who paid with their jobs.
And yet Johnson survives and looks more likely than not to lead his party into the next election. The prime minister’s instinct that he could ride out the crisis has been validated by Tory MPs who have concluded they cannot see a better electoral bet. They may be unenthusiastic about his leadership but they are even less keen to remove him. As important, they do not fear Keir Starmer’s Labor party. Johnson may be a drag on the Tory vote but opposition weakness keeps him competitive. In this respect, Johnson has shown contempt for his own party, recognizing that they are unprepared to uphold core standards in public life.
In terms of his survival, the report changes little. There is only more detail on the scale of parties and the disrespect shown to cleaning and security staff, but barely any new information.
If, as looks increasingly likely, Johnson hangs on to fight the next election, he will probably have the Metropolitan Police to thank. Counterfactuals are innately tricky but the belated decision to investigate Covid lockdown breaches in Downing Street stalled the full publication of a report which might – if it had been released in full at the moment of maximum pressure – have tipped his MPs into forcing a leadership challenge. Now it seems the moment has passed.
One reason MPs are unwilling to act is that Tory leadership rules prevent another contest for a year in the event of an unsuccessful challenge. But it will take a further collapse in the polls, perhaps over the cost of living crisis, or signs of Labor gaining ground, to change their calculation.
What is less clear is whether the pictures in the report will add to the sense of public anger. Most likely they will simply enforce existing views.
The likelihood is that voters have reached a settled opinion on this matter. What is unclear is how large a part it will play in their decision at the next election. While the jury of Tory MPs has decided not to act, the larger jury is still out.