Operation Save Big Dog
Is Boris Johnson toast? Eddie Ford comments on the partygate scandals and what it means for Sir Keir’s prospects
Boris Johnson’s fate seems to hang on a thread. Various reports suggest that rebellious Tory MPs are getting close to the magic 54 figure - the number of letters needed to be sent to the chair of the 1922 Committee in order to trigger a no confidence motion against the prime minister, which requires a simple majority to pass. With David Davis calling upon him to go in the name of god, with Christian Wakeford defecting, with Dominic Cummings plotting his next move, many think Johnson is already a goner. A mistake ... maybe.
True, a broad coalition of forces is ranged against Johnson - unlike Theresa May, where the sedition essentially came from just one group, the Brexiters (“the bastards”). In the words of one Conservative MP, “letters are coming from the left and from the right, from Brexiters and remainers.” But those who oppose Johnson lack organisation and a clear alternative candidate. Something that cannot be said of Johnson’s government and its whips.
Not surprisingly, an Opinium poll published on January 15 shows that Johnson’s personal approval ratings have fallen below the worst figures ever recorded by Theresa May - an ironic turn of events, given his role in her downfall. As for the actual party he leads it is languishing 10 points behind Labour on 31% - whilst the Liberal Democrats are on 9% and the Greens 6%. A YouGov survey conducted a few days earlier had 63% of the general public wanting Johnson to resign, and another poll by Savanta ComRes found that 66% would like him to go. His core Brexit supporters are divided, only 47% thinking he should remain. Adding to the prime minister’s woes, a survey by Grassroots Conservatives found “massive anger” amongst its ranks - 40% of them want Boris Johnson to quit. The same goes for many Tory donors. In the short term, these figures are bound to get worse for the prime minister.
Those on the left who insisted that Keir Starmer - as opposed to their hero Jeremy Corbyn - is a loser, or that he does not even want to win a general election, are looking ever more foolish. Having donned the Blue Labour patriotic mantle, having upped the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, having welcomed Christian Wakeford into the ranks of the Parliamentary Labcon Party, it is not impossible that Sir Keir could win the next election with a landslide (just as it is possible that Johnson somehow wriggles free from the self-inflicted mess and goes on for 13 more years).
In a failed attempt to elicit sympathy, Johnson gave an absolutely wretched interview with Sky News on January 18 - where, frankly, he looked tired, if not beaten. Johnson pathetically pleaded that “nobody warned me it was against the rules” for a drinks party to be held in the Downing Street garden during the first strict lockdown, and “if I had my time again, I would not have allowed things to develop in that way”. Of course, he was repeating what he had told parliament last week in his lawyerly and non-apologetic apology: that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event” and had not been warned in advance that it would be a mistake for the party to go ahead. Despite the fact that Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, sent email invites to about 100 people with the instruction to “bring your own booze” - and despite the fact that some of the nearly 40 people who attended the party (sorry, work event) were not actually Downing Street staff, such as Johnson’s wife. It has to be said that the prime minister was remarkably unobservant not to notice the tables awash with bottles of wine, nibbles, etc.
However, Johnson’s nemesis - the jilted Dominic Cummings - tells a completely different story. In a recent blog post, he says that he personally told Johnson on the day of the garden party that holding it was a mistake. But Johnson “waved [the concerns] aside”, we are told. Cummings also wrote that he and another “very senior official” told Reynolds on the day that holding the party would be against the rules. Reynolds disagreed, according to Cummings, but said he would discuss it with the prime minister. Cummings has stated that he would “swear under oath” that his version of events is true and correct - but does anyone really believe Cummings.
In the same Sky interview, Johnson confirmed that he had apologised - or grovelled - to the queen after it was revealed that staffers had held two separate leaving parties the day before Philip Windsor’s funeral on April 17 2021. This is when his widow was required by coronavirus restrictions to sit alone, an image that the sycophantic royalist press never tire of showing - presumably in an attempt to convince us of her near divine status. Anyhow, the two parties eventually merged into one and somebody was sent out with a wheelie suitcase to buy £142 worth of wine from the local Co-op for the Downing Street drinks fridge, as nobody appears to drink beer, whilst somebody else acted as a DJ - with a child swing used by one of Boris Johnson’s children getting broken during the revelry … almost Bacchanalian.
Meanwhile, apart from at work, the rest of us in the first lockdown were only allowed to socialise with one other person from a different household - which had to be in an outside public venue like a park, so long as we kept to social distancing rules. Some people could not be with their dying relatives, especially those in care homes, only able to communicate via Zoom or FaceTime - assuming their family member could use or understand the technology. In some cases, they watched their loved one die on Zoom - which must be a truly cruel experience.
The outrage of ordinary people against the partygate antics is obviously genuine and heartfelt - we abided by the rules, but those setting the rules did not. To mischievously borrow a phrase, you could call us the silent majority - because we got vaccinated and accepted the lockdowns as a necessary measure during a public health emergency. The anti-vax demonstrators, the anti-mask refuseniks, the lockdown breakers, the party goers were the minority.
This also explains the popular resentment against people who brazenly flout the rules in another recent scandal - that of Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one male tennis player, who has become a bit of a hate figure for the silent majority. Because of the nature of the media - which is not a criticism - they naturally focus on the protests against restrictions, or, in this particular case, on those supporting Djokovic. But clearly the majority of Australians - which is obviously the political calculation of prime minister Scott Morrison - support the government’s decision to rescind Djokovic’s visa, even if it was bungled. They took deep offense at the way the tennis star swanned around the place ignoring all the rules: why was he let into the country in the first place? We have been under a severe lockdown from the very beginning, but we stuck by the rules, unlike this arrogant guy.
Similar feelings can be found in France, which has less draconian restrictions than Australia. There can be little doubt that most French people sympathise with Emmanuel Macron’s recent comment about how he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated by “limiting as much as possible their access to activities in social life” - crude, but it could be politically effective, which is what really matters to him in a presidential election year. Sure, National Rally - those stout defenders of freedom - protested about Macron’s remarks, but the majority supported it. They recognise the need for mass vaccinations and state organisation to combat the virus.
This is part of something wider, explaining why the popular anger against the partygate scandals has purchase - it is a feeling that runs deep in society. As for Boris Johnson, digging himself deeper into the hole, you can safely say that popular opinion - and even a lot of Tory MPs - will not be impressed by Operation Save Big Dog, which the prime minister personally named. This consists of throwing a lot of his underlings, like Martin Reynolds, under the bus, blaming them for the fiasco. Very statesman-like. Nothing is ever the fault of Boris Johnson, of course. A more honest name would be Operation Save My Skin. Getting really desperate, Johnson has also launched Operation Red Meat to divert attention away from partygate. This is a supposedly populist offensive that includes attacks on the woke ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Company’, such as freezing the licence fee; sending in the navy to help tackle cross-Channel migration; compulsory training schemes for universal credit claimants; the much-delayed “levelling up” white paper; and the lifting of all Covid restrictions on January 26 if the Omicron wave continues to abate (which seems likely). In retaliation, anti-Johnson Tory MPs have setup Operation Rinka - in reference to the Great Dane shot dead on Exmoor during the Jeremy Thorpe affair in the 1970s, an incident that eventually led to the Liberal leader standing trial for conspiracy to murder. Maybe the anti-Johnson rebels optimistically envisage a similar fate befalling the prime minister.
Now everybody is waiting for Godot, or rather the partygate report by Sue Gray, the “independently minded” civil servant whose boss is … Boris Johnson, which for many represents a conflict of interests. It was hoped, at least by Johnson’s supporters, that it would come out at the end of this week. But that seems unlikely now, given that new scandals are being added daily to the inquiry’s remit. It may be another couple of weeks before we get a chance to see it. Johnson has been interviewed by Gray, and reportedly she will also grill Cummings about his explosive allegations that the prime minister lied to parliament and everybody else about the Downing Street garden party and god knows what else. But the reasonable expectation is that Gray’s report will be a fairly bland fact-finding operation about facts we already know - outlining when each alleged party occurred, how many people were present and who was involved in organising them. It will also, presumably, describe the regulations at that time, and could suggest whether each event appears to have broken the regulations in force at that time. In other words, the Gray report is not expected to recommend a criminal investigation and will therefore be Johnson’s ‘get out of jail free’ card.