Having endured his worst week as Prime Minister, rather than subsiding, the pressure on Boris Johnson has only intensified over the last few days as his government continues to be mired in scandal. Yesterday’s decision by the Metropolitan Police to launch a formal investigation into alleged breaches of lockdown rules around Downing Street and Whitehall follows the emergence of several fresh problems for Boris Johnson. We assess the current state of play and what this means for his survival prospects.
After a week of speculation about the Prime Minister’s future, Number 10 have been forced to confront more challenges that have gone on to dominate the news agenda over the last few days. In case you’ve struggled to keep track, we have listed the main ones below.
Nus Ghani allegations (Saturday/Sunday) – Former Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani alleged that she was sacked in a mini reshuffle in early 2020 because of her “Muslimness”. According to the MP for Wealden, the Whips told Ghani that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”.
Boris Johnson’s ‘Birthday Party’ revealed by ITV News (Monday) – First reported by ITV News, it emerged on Monday that the Prime Minister had a birthday party during England’s first lockdown in 2020, despite Covid rules at the time banning indoor social gatherings. Suggestions by allies of the Prime Minister that it was nothing more than a quick gathering with cake were quickly undermined by the attendance of Lulu Lytle, designer of the redecoration of the Downing Street flat. In total, 15 ‘events’ are now being investigated by the civil servant, Sue Gray.
Lord Agnew quits over Covid fraud (Monday) – To make matters worse for Johnson, Treasury Minister Lord Agnew resigned at the dispatch box on Monday criticising the government’s handling of fraudulent Covid business loans. The announcement was made in response to a question from Labour about the £4.3bn of Covid loans written off by the Treasury. In his remarks, Lord Agnew accused his department of making “schoolboy errors” by giving loans to over 1,000 companies who were not trading when Covid struck.
Investigation launched by The Met Police (Tuesday) – The Metropolitan Police announced a criminal investigation into alleged “serious and flagrant” breaches of coronavirus restrictions in Downing Street and Whitehall on Tuesday. In a move that heaps pressure on the Prime Minister, Dame Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, said that detectives were investigating a “number of events” over the past two years without specifying which. She said the investigation had been opened as a result of information provided by the Cabinet Office.
The relentless drip of stories finding their way into the press on an almost daily basis has now removed any doubt that there is a concerted effort in some quarters to oust Boris Johnson. Having been accused of blackmailing MPs last week, the government Whips’ Office now finds itself confronting further allegations of misconduct, this time of Islamophobia against a former minister. The fact that Number 10 have been forced to establish a ‘shadow’ whipping operation only serves to underline their lack of confidence in the official one. It also indicates a complete loss of control over party discipline.
The developments over the last few days only add to the pressure on a beleaguered Prime Minister, who now finds himself fighting on multiple fronts for survival. Rumours also persist of a move by the 1922 Committee Executive to cut the minimum time between votes of no confidence from 1 year to six months. This would give MPs a second bite at the cherry when it comes to removing Johnson should any ballot be triggered, further diminishing his prospects of fighting the next election.
The decision by The Met to investigate alleged lockdown breaches in Number 10 will not only give ‘partygate’ more legs, but discredit any argument by the Prime Minister’s allies that these were minor infringements. The last time Scotland Yard investigated Number 10 was in March 2006 when they kicked off a 16-month inquiry into the cash-for-honours scandal, overshadowing the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s final months in office.
The Prime Minister has just put in a buoyant performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, but in reality, he couldn’t do anything else if he wants to try and keep his backbenchers on side. With the Sue Gray report said to be imminent, there is a growing sense that it will bring forward more damaging revelations. Coupled with the discomfort that some Conservative MPs will have about Downing Street being subject to a police investigation when the Conservatives see themselves as the party of law and order, there continue to be sharks in the water for the Prime Minister as questions about lockdown breaches continue to paralyze his government.