In a phone call with Joe Biden and other western leaders last night, Boris Johnson declared that “we must judge Putin’s regime by its actions not its words” amid skepticism about Russia’s offer during peace talks to pull its forces back from Kyiv.
Yet Johnson is not practicing what he preaches on the domestic front. We now know the law was broken at Downing Street parties during lockdown, after the Metropolitan Police announced that 20 fixed penalty notices are being issued. Yet the prime minister is still in denial; Downing Street refuses to accept the law was broken.
Tory MPs tie themselves in knots as they make excuses not to oust him over Partygate. Andrew Bridgen gets the gold award for saying he would now support the PM in a vote of confidence – even though he had submitted a letter calling for such a vote. So Bridgen will now vote against himself, on the grounds that “getting rid of him would play into Putin’s hands”. (Brexiteers like Bridgen didn’t worry about that when they took us out of the EU.)
Other such letter writers applauded Johnson at a fittingly-timed dinner for Tory MPs last night. Outside the Park Plaza Hotel across the Thames from Parliament, relatives of Covid victims asked the arriving MPs whether they were “off to another party?” Characteristically, Johnson could afford to crack jokes about letters calling for a confidence vote, saying these “epistles” were “elastic” because “they go in and you can pull them out.” Some MPs, like Bridgen, have withdrawn their letters.
Some senior Tories tell me Johnson is not out of the woods yet, especially if he is fined, and will still face a “reckoning” when the senior civil servant Sue Gray’s final Partygate report is published. Yet the overall mood among Tory backbenchers is that the controversy has run out of steam because of Ukraine. That’s precisely what Johnson wants them to think, of course. The line for ministers and loyalist backbenchers to take is: “Do mention the war!” because it makes Partygate look like old news and relatively trivial.
Johnson has used the delay handed him by the police investigation well. He has installed a new Downing Street team which MPs say is better than the one which foolishly allowed him to say Covid rules had been obeyed, opening him up to the charge of misleading parliament.
Johnson has handed out jobs like sweeties to keep critics onside. One who was very unhappy about Partygate but has won promotion told me: “Ukraine has changed everything. Boris has shown his strengths of him. He will lead us into the next general election now.”
Some Tories point to the praise heaped on Johnson by Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, who, to the PM’s delight, has been less flattering about Emmanuel Macron.
But Johnson quipped at last night’s dinner that he was “more popular in parts of Kyiv than in parts of Kensington”. Tory MPs say public anger over Partygate has cooled a little but admit it is still there. Some say they will be guided by the public’s eventual verdict. Although that could come at the May local elections, the saga might not be over by then and could drag on for months, to Number 10’s frustration.
In any case, poor Tory results in May will likely be seen as reflecting the cost-of-living crisis. That would suit Johnson nicely, since he could deflect the blame onto Rishi Sunak. The PM gave the game away the morning after the chancellor’s spring statement, saying the government would “need to do more” to protect living standards.
That Sunak is now seen as a falling star in the Tory universe hands spineless MPs another excuse to stick with Johnson. There is no obvious king or queen over the water, as Johnson was to Theresa May.
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Although history shows the Tories are more ruthless than Labor in committing acts of regicide, the easiest decision in politics is to put off a decision. There will be another excuse for keeping Johnson along soon. Such as: he’s the only one who can retain the red wall seats.
Johnson purports to take responsibility for what happened in Number 10, but he doesn’t for his own actions. In a half round today, Dominic Raab hinted at Johnson’s defense of him on misleading parliament, speaking of his “understanding of events” and saying: “I do n’t think there was an intention to mislead.”
Raab would not grant the PM should now correct the record. He did show how Johnson might evade an inquiry into whether he had broken the ministerial code in his statements from him to parliament, saying this would be “a matter for Lord Geidt” – the adviser on ministerial interests.
But it wouldn’t be: Geidt still lacks the much-needed power to launch his own investigations and can do so only at the PM’s behavior. I doubt Johnson will want an inquiry into himself.
Partygate surely demonstrates that Johnson has a casual relationship with all seven principles of public life – “selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership” – accepted by all political parties since 1995. This makes a nonsense of his rhetoric about defending democracy in Ukraine. Voters should judge Johnson by his actions, not his words.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.