Sue Gray isn’t going to end Boris

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Hers is the name on everyone’s lips. We should “wait for Sue Gray,” say government ministers when pressed about the Prime Minister’s notorious garden party. Lets “see what Sue Gray finds,” say Conservative backbenchers when asked if they’ve submitted a letter to Sir Graham Brady calling for a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. 

Sue Gray, Sue Gray! It is the most striking incantation of a British woman’s name since Mrs Moore was given similar treatment by EM Forster in A Passage To India. But can the spirit of Ms Gray calm the febrile mood in Westminster, as the PM’s supporters hope, or will her report on partying at Downing Street prove to be the tipping point, with Boris Johnson the entity getting tipped?

Historical precedence suggests that the findings of the Gray inquiry, expected within a fortnight, are unlikely to contain explicit condemnation of Johnson. That is just not what senior establishment figures do to sitting prime ministers when called on to assess their conduct. But neither are they particularly keen on becoming bywords for a whitewash. So we will probably be left scouring her conclusions for a memorable piece of indirect criticism, a withering phrase that will echo down the ages.

That alone does not end Johnson’s problems, however. His latest poll ratings are verging on levels last experienced by the Tories in the latter Theresa May era and he has brought most of it on himself.

What looks increasingly like a fatal character flaw was spotted way back in his school days by Martin Hammond, Johnson’s housemaster and classics teacher at Eton. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” wrote Hammond in a letter to Johnson’s father Stanley in April 1982.

For most of his life, Johnson got away with that cavalier approach, deploying charm and charisma to grant himself licence to behave differently from lesser mortals. But leading the country at a time when huge sacrifices were being demanded of the British public has tested that approach to destruction. The country’s chief rule-maker can hardly be a major rule-breaker too, not when lives are at stake. The muted responses of the Conservative benches at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday was telling. 

Still, there are glimmers of hope for him. The Covid data is continuing to improve and much of the country may eventually credit him with having got the big decisions right over the past 12 months, even if they are not in the mood for doing so at the moment. He oversaw the fastest vaccination programme in Europe, successfully unlocked the country in July, accelerated boosters in the autumn and refused to lockdown again in the face of the omicron wave in December (with the aid of his backbenchers and Cabinet minister). 

The biggest challenge looking ahead is the cost of living crisis, which will lead to even more resentment towards a government that is raising taxes and refusing to extract energy domestically, so good news on Covid is unlikely to suffice.

Johnson can reasonably rely on Sue Gray’s report not pointing the finger directly at him. But he cannot be sure — especially if Labour maintains a lead in the polls — that his party won’t turn on him before the next general election.


Join our webinar and chat to Telegraph journalists about Boris Johnson’s leadership tomorrow Friday January 14 at midday

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