Partygate: Drunken fights and vomiting – but the Sue Gray report was a relief for Boris Johnson | Politics News


We waited five months for Sue Gray and when it landed it was, in some ways, as bad as it was billed. 

A meticulous report documenting 15 gatherings, it detailed a casual disregard for rules and contemptuous treatment of security and cleaning staff. There, in black and white, were accounts of drunken altercations, vomiting, karaoke machines, pizza takeaways and noisy parties going past midnight.

And amid all of the lurid details, this remark from one of the most senior officials in Downing Street after one event: “We seem to have got away with it.” The whole 37-pages are embarrassing, awkward, shameful even.

And yet, for the prime minister personally, this report was a relief. You might do a double-take at that given the brazen rule-breaking Sue Gray uncovered and documented, but crucially for Boris Johnson there was no smoking gun in this report that incriminated him further when it came to events he attended or the planning of them.

When he stood up in parliament to explain and apologise, he was almost bullish – for him, Ms Gray had “vindicated” him.

Yes, there were rule-breaking events, but he attended because he thought they were work events and departed before they got out of hand. He repeatedly pointed out he’d only been fined once and denied he’d lied to MPs.

For Ms Gray, this report documented “failures of leadership” at the heart of government as the senior civil servant concluded many “will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government”.

She went on to say: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official must bear responsibility for this culture.”

To that end, the prime minister has cleared the decks of his top team, with his chief of staff, his director of communications, his principal private secretaries and the two deputies departed. But the two most senior heads – his and the head of the civil service Simon Case – have not rolled.

Because, whatever the culture or leadership failures, or Met fines, for Mr Johnson this whole sorry saga has really been about whether it was survivable for him.

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PM: ‘I simply wasn’t there’

At points earlier in the year, he clearly worried that it was not. Today he had the air of a politician who is most definitely surviving as he bounced through his triumvirate of apologies – parliament, the news conference and then MPs – with a key message in mind: I’m sorry but it’s time to move on.

He undoubtedly thought he’d got through it. One of his detractors told me that in the meeting with backbenchers tonight the PM seemed to suggest that he has to appear contrite because people are upset, but in reality, he has been proved – by the police and Sue Gray – of not doing much wrong and soon he will be able to return to his old ebullient self.

That approach has not impressed some. The attacks may not have been plentiful on Wednesday – Tobias Ellwood called on him to go and was heckled by colleagues for it – but neither were the voices of support, with just 16 MPs speaking – and not all entirely favourably – in the chamber.

There have been other voices of dissent. Julian Sturdy became the 16th Conservative MP to say the PM should resign. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the PM should stand down when the war in Ukraine ends.

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Partygate report released in full

Stephen Hammond, a former minister, told me on Wednesday he couldn’t “defend the indefensible” and was struck by “a number of colleagues who were really concerned that it’s almost impossible for the PM to say I want to move on, and yet we haven’t regained the public trust. I’m not sure we can”.

“We haven’t regained the public trust. I am not sure we can. A lot of colleagues today are perhaps realising that unless something happens, we might not be able to win the next general election.”

When I asked Mr Hammond whether the PM should resign he didn’t quite say yes: “I think the PM doesn’t enjoy the trust of the British people and I think he needs to reflect on that very carefully.”

That’s the acid test really. The PM can survive, but can he really thrive in No 10 if he has lost the confidence of the public and many of his MPs?

A snap YouGov poll on Wednesday found three out of five Britons think the PM should resign in light of the report, and 74% think the PM knowingly lied about breaking lockdown rules, including a majority of Tory voters.

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I remember in 2017, when Theresa May called the snap election and then lost her majority. The morning after her nemesis and former chancellor George Osborne went on television and declared she was a “dead woman walking” – in power but without authority. She was ousted less than two years later.

Is that where his whole awful affair has left Mr Johnson too – as a dead man walking? He is, of course, a different operator, a consummate campaigner and commands a 79 seat majority.

But he is undoubtedly deeply damaged too and is now facing a huge economic challenge and cost of living crisis. He will carry on regardless but at some point, his MPs will have to decide whether they want him to. Decision day delayed, again.


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