Usually-loyal Conservative MPs are privately asking how much longer this can go on
Boris Johnson is often accused of lacking a moral compass. His former press secretary Allegra Stratton not only possesses such an instrument, but yesterday used it to navigate her way out of government.
As a former ITN colleague of Allegra’s, I found it as painful to watch her tearful departure as it was excruciating to see her giggle her way through the mock press conference about last year’s now infamous Downing Street Christmas party.
As she said in her resignation statement: “My remarks seemed to make light of the rules, rules that people were doing everything to obey.”
She did the right thing in quitting. The speed with which she did so – less than 24 hours after the video was made public – underlined her understanding of people’s anger with the government.
Now others, from the prime minister down, need to channel her emotional intelligence. While Stratton realised even last year that she was being asked to defend the indefensible over the alleged 18 December shindig – “what’s the answer?” she asked when colleagues acted up as journalists posing questions about it – her boss continues to insouciantly declare he’s sorry about a party he denies took place.
Blustering through Prime Minister’s Questions, hosting the familiar press conference with his scientific and medical colleagues: yesterday was just another day in the office for him.
Usually-loyal Conservative MPs are now privately asking how much longer this can go on.
Those who didn’t vote for him in the 2019 leadership election think they got the measure of the man back then. They know Johnson is unlikely to find a moral compass stuffed down the back of the Downing Street sofa.
Stratton was only the latest woman to carry the can for his “hey ho”, devil-may-care attitude after all.
Allegations of multiple infidelities reportedly destroyed his 25-year marriage to Marina Wheeler. His current wife was taped saying during a private row: “You don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt.” And the former home secretary Amber Rudd homed in on his unreliability when she remarked of him in a TV debate during the 2016 Brexit referendum: “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but he is not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”
Well now his backbenchers are wondering if the party’s over. One senior Tory – not a natural critic of the prime minister – told me last night: “This really hurts.” I asked him if it was over the top to ponder if Johnson’s job might be on the line. “No it’s not,” came the response.
There are other parties that allegedly took place, in apparent contravention of the rules in place at the time. There are rumours – no stronger than that – that pictures may emerge.
The cabinet secretary, responding to the 18 December cheese and wine party allegations, will now widen investigations to examine reports of a separate gathering hosted in No 10 em novembro, and a festive event at the Department for Education. Labour has pushed for the investigation to take place, suspecting, talvez, that while there has so far been no suggestion the prime minister attended that gathering, he may have gone to others.
If evidence emerges of that, a few more letters of no confidence in the PM may find their way to the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. Even more troubling for him, several senior MPs are openly reminding him that misleading the Commons is a resignation matter.
Last Wednesday at PMQs, Johnson insisted categorically: “All guidance was followed completely [dentro] No 10.” Yesterday, he said he was “sickened and furious” to see the video clip.
Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker told me on last night’s Canal 4 News: “The prime minister is absolutely adamant he did not know that there was a party going on or a gathering at No 10 and we have to take that at face value and in good faith. But if any minister misleads the house – be it the prime minister or a junior parliamentary under secretary of state – they have to go.”
Claro, you can see how the great escapologist can wriggle off that particular hook. As he said in the Commons yesterday: “I have been repeatedly assured … that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.” Yet again, the staff who gave him those repeated assurances could pay the price for a prime minister living in blissful ignorance as a raucous party raged – reportedly until 2am – in the very same building.
But there are only so many times you can burn the colleagues on whose loyalty your survival depends. And there are only so many times you can burn the voters, também.
In the middle of the 2016 American presidential election, Donald Trump joked that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. He won that contest but, in the end, he lost.
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Agora, after the Afghanistan fiasco, cronyism rows, the Owen Paterson scandal, and the Christmas party saga, some Conservative MPs are losing patience simply because their constituents are too.
There’s an electoral test next week – the North Shropshire by-election. Bookmakers have slashed the odds of a Liberal Democrat victory. It’s never wise to make predictions for the general election after such a vote, but losing a seat with a majority of nearly 23,000 would certainly focus Tory minds.
Perhaps it will also make Johnson reflect on the irony that the very personality traits which enabled him to get the top job might also end up depriving him of it.
Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays, at 7pm