Boris Johnson’s apology for attending a party in Downing Street during the Covid lockdown in May 2020 may have bought him some time but the jury is out on whether it has saved his political career. Support from his own backbenches in the Commons was muted, suggesting that Tory MPs now seriously question his ability to survive the outcome of an independent inquiry into the events which is being conducted by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant. At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, went so far as to accuse Mr Johnson of “lying through his teeth”, normally regarded as an unparliamentary term but which the Speaker allowed because it was a view attributed to the British public.
Mr Johnson conceded for the first time that he attended the gathering in the garden of No 10 on May 20 2020, when parties were forbidden and more than two households were not allowed to meet. He said he wished now that it had not happened. He spent just half an hour at the party, attended by around 30 officials, but was of the view that it was a work meeting. However, given the nature of the email invitation from his Principal Private Secretary urging guests to “bring your own booze”, that is a shaky position to adopt. If there are emails warning him against the party or a video of the event, as rumoured, it will be even more so.
While it was the most difficult moment of Mr Johnson’s two-and-half-years in Downing Street, it may not be the terminal event that was being predicted. At least he did not persist in refusing to say whether or not he was even there. This was always an untenable position and one he was right to abandon.
In doing so, however, he had to make a concession that will alarm his colleagues, even if many had already reached this conclusion, namely that he exercised woefully poor judgment in allowing the party to take place.
Mr Johnson now imagines his fate rests in the hands of Ms Gray and her report, which may well decline to point a finger directly at the Prime Minister if there are any ambiguities in the rules. However, the truth is that his future will be determined by the MPs sitting behind him who are having to take the brunt of their voters’ fury. Many now question whether he has either the judgment or authority to take the party forward to the next general election.