British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will probably hold onto his job for now despite a scathing report about government coronavirus lockdown parties, but his long-term future is out of his hands as police probe claims of rule breaking, analysts said on Tuesday.
Johnson on Monday apologised after his government was criticised for “failures of leadership and judgment” in allowing parties at his offices while the rest of the country followed strict curbs.
His position has been hanging by a thread because of the steady drip of revelations since late last year, leading to an increasingly mutinous mood among his MPs.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray published her report about the claims on Monday, but it is only a watered-down version as she has handed potential evidence – including 300 photographs – on the most serious accusations for the police to investigate.
However, Scotland Yard said it will not reveal the names of any staff who receive fixed penalty notices, raising questions about whether the public will ever know if Johnson was fined.
The police probe has allowed Johnson some breathing space, but “given how much is being investigated by the police, that is going to hurt him very hard,” Simon Usherwood, political and international studies professor at the Open University, told AFP.
“He’s probably safe for the next short period of time, but I think yesterday has really highlighted that it’s very much out of his hands at this point,” he added.
The timeline “is probably weeks rather then months,” he added.
Mark of shame
Despite being limited in what she could say, Gray still managed a stinging rebuke to the prime minister’s authority, contrasting government officials’ behaviour with the sacrifices made by the public during the pandemic.
Gray said “too little thought” had been given about how appropriate boozy events were and would be seen as inconsiderate by others who stuck to the rules, unable to comfort sick and dying loved ones with COVID-19.
“Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did,” she added.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the fact that 12 of the 16 parties, including one in Johnson’s own flat, were subject to a police probe was “a mark of shame”.
Anand Menon, European politics and foreign affairs professor at King’s College London, said Johnson was “slightly more in jeopardy” than before the report was published. However, he said the lack of any obvious candidates for MPs to coalesce around was helping the prime minister.
“I think one of the reasons why he’s still there is precisely because his MPs are unconvinced by any of the alternatives.
“Boris Johnson created quite a unique electoral coalition.
“There is a recognition in the parliamentary party that it takes someone as ideologically ambiguous as Johnson to hold that coalition together, because he’s unique in the fact that he can appeal to red-wall voters (in former Labour strongholds), and he can appeal to traditional Tories.
“That’s not obviously the case with any of his potential successors,” he added.
Hesitation to act
Johnson could quit if he “gets a whiff” that the police have got damaging evidence, but it would be more likely that he is deposed by his own MPs, said Menon.
For this to happen, 54 of them would have to send letters of no-confidence to trigger a vote.
More than half of the party’s 359 MPs would then have to vote him out of office, triggering a leadership campaign.
But this process can only occur once within a 12-month period, another factor that rebellious MPs need to take into account.
“I think for a lot of MPs, they probably think he should go, but are not sure that now is quite the right time to move. So there’s a very strong sort of hesitation to act,” said Menon.
Some, he said, are still waiting for the police report and others waiting for the results of local elections.
The police force is investigating a cocktail party in May 2020 in the Downing Street garden, as well as Christmas celebrations, and a drink-fuelled get-together the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral.
Staff reportedly brought a suitcase filled with alcohol and danced until the small hours.
Queen Elizabeth II was subsequently pictured at the funeral, sitting alone in the chapel at Windsor Castle as she mourned her husband of 73 years.
Downing Street later apologised to the monarch.