Britain’s Metropolitan Police announced this week that they will investigate a series of highly controversial parties held in U.K. government buildings, including the office of the prime minister at 10 Downing Street, to assess whether they violated COVID-19 rules. That bombshell will draw yet more media and public attention to a story that’s terribly embarrassing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government. It also signals that the so-called Gray Report, the result of an investigation into the same questions led by senior official Sue Gray, will not be the last word on this matter. Gray is sharing the information she’s uncovered about these parties with police investigators.
What were these parties, and what was wrong with them?
In May 2020, at a time when the U.K. government instructed Britons to observe social distancing rules or pay fines, Johnson attended a wine and cheese gathering of staffers in the Downing Street garden. More than 100 guests were invited to “bring your own booze!” In June 2020, when rules banned most indoor gatherings of more than two people, about 30 gathered in Johnson’s office to present him with a cake and sing happy birthday to him.
Two more parties, including one in Johnson’s home, allegedly took place in November 2020 during a national COVID-19 lockdown. His staff was also caught on video laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party which likewise took place during a lockdown and at a time when U.K. hospitals were filled to capacity and loved ones were forbidden to enter. Other similar accusations are now under investigation.
How vulnerable is the prime minister?
This latest wave of bad news arrives at a moment when the U.K.’s prime minister is already remarkably unpopular. As of January 16, before the police announced their investigation of the Downing Street parties, just 22% of respondents said that Johnson was doing his job “well.” Some 73% said he was performing “badly.” The prime minister is under water even with Conservative Party voters. With numbers like those, sharks in the opposition, the media, and critically within his own party are circling, and there are few allies willing to defend him.
The parties are only a small part of Johnson’s problem with voters and his critics within the Conservative Party. They highlight the ways in which a party in power can impose one set of rules for the nation and another for itself. They present an image of political elites at play as ordinary people struggle with illness, economic hardship, and fear. And denials followed by admissions after damning evidence is uncovered have exposed Johnson’s habit of shading the truth—and sometimes simply lying.
It’s the economy…and the virus
The larger burdens for Johnson and his government center on his handling of COVID-19 and the state of Britain’s economy. Leaders of all the major opposition parties—Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party—gripe that Johnson’s leadership during the pandemic has been erratic, which critics within his own party have argued that government-ordered lockdowns have inflicted unnecessary damage on a struggling economy.
Johnson’s biggest economic burdens have taken the form of product shortages and inflation, which surged to 5.4 percent in December, the highest rate in three decades. Higher prices are caused by multiple factors: global product shortages and supply chain gaps created by COVID-19, central bank policies designed to stoke economic growth rather than contain prices, and even worker shortages exacerbated by changes to labor laws that followed Brexit. Inflation is a hot button political issue because it erodes the value of the money in voters’ pockets. And Johnson has yet to persuade voters and political critics that he has a credible plan to make things better.
Speaking of Brexit, it has undermined Johnson in other ways, as well. Those within his Conservative Party who favor a tougher approach to divorce from the European Union are angry that Johnson has accepted, at least temporarily, a de facto E.U.-U.K. border that separates Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The intent was to avoid the recreation of a hard border between Northern Ireland, still part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the E.U., but negotiations over this problem will continue.
The finish line
The moment of truth will come if/when at least 54 Conservative Party members of parliament send letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of a body called the 1922 Committee, to trigger a vote of confidence. At that point, Johnson will have to choose between waging the political fight of his life to save his job or resigning to avoid a battle he knows he can’t win.
The (marginally) good news for Johnson is that the finish line may still be months away, allowing him time to change the subject and improve his position. On January 28, the Metropolitan Police issued a statement which noted that Sue Gray’s report on the parties should only make “minimal reference” to the parties under investigation. That means that Gray’s report will be heavily redacted, delayed for weeks, or both.
The U.K. will hold local elections in May. If COVID-19 eases, the economy improves, and Johnson’s government can cut a deal with the E.U. on the Irish border question that satisfies most Britons, he might yet survive a vote of confidence. But for now, that’s not the direction Johnson’s fate appears headed.
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