Putin to the rescue

Ukraine has saved Boris Johnson’s bacon and he knows it, writes Eddie Ford

Though it almost sounds like news from a different world, at the beginning of the week the Metropolitan Police announced that it has started interviewing “key witnesses” to the Downing Street ‘partygate’ scandal. As part of its ‘Operation Hillman’ investigation, the Met has issued more than 100 questionnaires to attendees of the gatherings that took place during lockdown.

Fairly predictably, the police statement distinctly suggests officers have not yet found breaches that meet the evidentiary threshold for fixed-penalty notices to be issued without further interviews. The Met update also suggests that the investigation still has a long way to go, saying it “involves a significant amount of investigative material”, because of “the need to individually assess every response” when it comes to the questionnaires, “alongside all available evidence”.

Apparently this includes 500 pages of documents and more than 300 photographs - some taken at the parties and others from security-system cameras. The police also have access to security pass data, showing who entered and exited the building, as well as screenshots of WhatsApp messages about parties. There is also the fact that the legislation itself changed between the event dates. Boris Johnson, of course, has dutifully filled in a questionnaire.

As for the completed Sue Gray report (some having fantasised about it bringing down the Johnson government), we will have to wait even longer for that. When the Met suddenly announced that it was going to investigate partygate after all, having previously said that the police do not normally investigate “retrospective breaches” of coronavirus regulations, that put the kibosh on Gray’s ‘independent’ report. This led to widespread anger about the Met’s “incompetence”, though whether that was the real problem is debatable. As a consequence of the Met’s decision, Gray has published instead an “interim” 12-page report gutted of any conclusions or real recommendations, while she waits for the police investigation to run its course.

The slimmed down - or censored - report merely moans about some behaviour related to the gatherings being “difficult to justify” and that “excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time”. Not exactly the sort of stuff that topples governments, prime ministers or presidents. Arguably, Gray could have published the full report anyway, regardless of the Met investigation - but she ducked out, doubtlessly coming under intense pressure from all sides. Out of 16 events Gray reviewed, police are investigating 12 of them, including as many as six that the prime minister is reported to have attended. Boris Johnson has promised, for what it is worth, that the Gray report will be published “in full” at some point - but don’t hold your breath: it is unlikely a verdict on Johnson will be reached before the May local elections.

Given that the war in Ukraine has totally knocked partygate off the news agenda, plus the Met’s statement that it has not yet issued any FPNs, it is hardly surprising that allies of Boris Johnson are openly expressing confidence that he will emerge unscathed. Loyal Johnson henchman Oliver Dowden, the Tory co-chair, has said: “The prime minister is actually absolutely resolutely clear that he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice, because he is confident that he has not broken the law.”

Going straight to the point - as he often does in his own weird way - the obnoxious Jacob Rees-Mogg (now laughably the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency) described partygate as “fundamentally trivial” and “disproportionate fluff”: the “seriousness” of Vladimir Putin’s invasion made it look like “nonsense”. He later said that when in the future we look back at partygate, people will think, “What were they on about? They were moving from Covid to Russia and Ukraine, yet they were distracted by whether or not the PM spent five minutes in his own garden.”

Lord Cruddas, a major Conservative Party donor, also thought that Boris Johnson should be given a break. In his opinion, partygate had been “blown out of proportion, quite frankly”. Indeed, Johnson has “done a brilliant job” delivering Brexit and then the vaccine programme - meaning we should “look on the positives and not on the negatives”. For Cruddas, the £250,000 he sent to the party six weeks ago right at the height of partygate was money well spent, as “we should be grateful to Boris”. Where would we be without him?


Showing how the mood is changing, the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, has withdrawn his letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson because of the war in Ukraine - now is no time for a change of leadership. National unity and resolve come first, as “there will be a time and place to debate partygate” later. Therefore there needs to be a “pause” on the row, as Russia continues its assault on Ukraine. In the view of Ross, it is “essential that we all fully support what the UK government is doing” over Ukraine - the only leader who should be removed is Vladimir Putin.

The same goes for Andrew Bridgen, a Spartan of the European Research Group - who has also publicly withdrawn his letter of no confidence. Speaking at an event organised by The Daily Telegraph entitled, ‘How will history judge Boris Johnson?’, Bridgen said he was “appalled by partygate” - but that the current climate was “no time for internecine warfare within the Conservative Party”: it would be an “indulgence” to hold a vote of no confidence during a war. Rather, he stated, “we need Boris Johnson where he is, leading the country” - despite the fact that in mid-January he had hoped that Johnson would be out of No10 within “two or three months”. Remember your patriotic duty: country comes first. Right now, there is clearly no chance of Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee, getting the 54 letters required to trigger a confidence vote in Johnson.

Sir Keir too appears to be putting on pause his criticisms of Boris Johnson over partygate. In an interview he gave to the BBC on March 6, he fudged the question of whether he stood by his previous and repeated calls for Johnson to resign immediately. Sir Keir said that there was still an “issue of trust” for Boris Johnson - who is not “fit for office”. However, Sir Keir remarked, his focus was on Ukraine, rather than domestic political issues. Vladimir Putin wants to divide the west, hence it was very important “in our politics that we show the world that we’re united”. Whatever criticisms he might have of the prime minister, “there is unity and it’s very important that we demonstrate that unity”. But shortly after that interview, a Labour spokesperson insisted that “our position is unchanged: we haven’t withdrawn our call for Boris Johnson to resign”.

Well, should Boris go or not? Labour seems to be saying it is focused like a laser beam on Ukraine for the moment, but will resume its call for Johnson’s resignation in the unlikely event that he is issued with a fine for breaching lockdown rules. Yet there is an obvious problem for Labour and Johnson’s Tory opponents - the situation in Ukraine could well be even worse by then. So do they keep their criticisms on pause, or risk undermining ‘national unity’ at a time of extreme crisis? As imperialist politicians, the assumption has to be that they will keep quiet on partygate and swing behind the government.

Thanks to the Ukraine war, Boris Johnson is safe when it comes to partygate, whatever the police finally conclude, unless it is something sensational that we have hitherto not known about. Vladimir Putin has come to his rescue. New polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies suggests Boris Johnson’s net approval rating has returned to levels not seen since the partygate scandals hit Downing Street in December. The Conservative Party also seems to have closed the gap with Labour in recent weeks, according to YouGov.

“Give me lucky generals” (not skilled ones) is a quote widely attributed to Napoleon, though it was probably based on something said by Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France in the 17th century.1 Boris Johnson has undoubtedly been a lucky prime minister. Here was a national lockdown where he and his associates were engaging in serial partying, which was filmed and photographed. This was not just embarrassing. The Tory government was imposing these laws on other people and indeed the police aggressively closed down the Sarah Everard protest precisely on the basis of government legislation. Telling us what to do, but not doing what they said we should do. Pure hypocrisy.

But Ukraine has almost certainly saved Boris Johnson’s bacon, and he knows it. Thus the numerous stories in the press that Johnson has put Tory HQ on battle stations for an autumn election next year, as he presumably thinks that he is now out of the woods when it comes to partygate. With people dying in what looks like a protracted war, he must calculate, going on about garden parties and how much wine was drunk will be dismissed by most people as “fluff” and “nonsense”.

If anything is going to present a big problem for the prime minister, it is not partygate, but rather the rise in the cost of living. For starters, we have a 54% increase in the energy price cap next month, a rise in national insurance payments, not to mention much higher overall inflation - now at a 30-year high of 6.2%, which the Bank of England fears could hit double digits this year.

This will hit people hard.


  1. warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/famous-things-napoleon-said.html.↩︎