Another triumph for Boris Johnson’s Houdini act. Partygate appears over with today’s announcement that the Metropolitan police has closed the file on Downing Street parties, with 126 penalty notices and reportedly no more for the prime minister. Rumours are that Sue Gray’s separate report on the parties will be published next week, but it is hard to see what it is likely to add, or what will come from the continuing inquiry into whether the prime minister “misled parliament”. Johnson’s tactic of devolving judgment to a dilatory police force has worked, albeit at the cost of £460,000. What appeared last December to be a resignation issue has been kicked down the road so many times as to disappear from view.
Like all high-profile political sagas, Partygate looks like one of those transient Westminster storms more seismic at the time than in retrospect. It stands with other “affairs”, such as Profumo, Westland, Formula One and Cheriegate in the canon of moments when the strictures of Westminster seemed to usurp those of the electorate. They display De Tocqueville’s truth about British politics, that its ethos is that of a club not of a mob. Leaders are at most short-term risk when they offend the club, not the people.
The breaking of lockdown rules by Downing Street in 2020 infuriated the British public. It had been asked to suffer social privation on an unprecedented scale and did so only after the most explicit insistence from the prime minister that it was for the greater good. It led to extreme misery and suffering during a desperately difficult time for all.
It also led to many cases where people did not follow the stricter – admittedly often sillier – rules. When Johnson was himself found guilty of this, public anger was understandable. It was exacerbated by his display of habitual mendacity under pressure and his clear belief that he could waffle and stall his way out of trouble. In this he was helped by Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which he exploited outrageously, and by an unfortunate slip by Labour’s Keir Starmer, his prime tormenter, caught drinking a bottle of beer in an office. Starmer was duly goaded by the rightwing press into Beergate, and a promise to resign if found to have erred likewise.
Since then, much water has flowed past the walls of Westminster. Johnson has had to sack a half dozen of his closest advisers. He has also paid a predictably heavy price at the May local elections. But the heat has been waning. Forecasts that the May election would end his stay of execution for Partygate were false. Time was the healer. As of now, Johnson can plead that he still has the “misleading parliament” inquiry to pass judgment, and that is expected to be under Tory acting chairmanship.
For the time being, Johnson’s cabinet or parliamentary party seem unlikely to summon a leadership election to eject him. Any cabinet colleague suspected of disloyalty can expect to vanish in a summer reshuffle. Partygate is over and, in all common decency, the Durham police, de facto collaborators in Johnson’s escapology, should also end Starmer’s torment. His “crime” was footling in comparison with Johnson’s.
The irony of politics is the deeper the mess into which a leader takes his country, the more secure he probably is in the short term. The prime minister stumbles from mess to mess, each one somehow overriding the last. Partygate now seems trivial against the shambles of Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol, where his past ineptitude remains critically in need of resolution. Yet that, too, seems in just a week to have given way to its successor, the cost of living crisis. Here again, the impression is of a leader fumbling for policy options, with a team of B-grade ministers all nervous for their jobs. It is hard to recall a time when the British economy was in worse custodianship just when it most needed the best.
As so often in Johnson’s career, all that matters is the now. His judgment is fixed not on interest rates or taxes, energy prices or health spending, Brexit or Ukraine. It is fixed on opinion polls, headlines, press leaks, tearoom gossip and letters to the 1922 Committee. The clouds of Partygate may have cleared and Johnson may be free, but one thing is certain of this prime minister. When one cloud clears, another is on the horizon.