Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

Boris Johnson walked into the House of Commons tea room at noon on Wednesday, a timeless ritual for prime ministers fighting for their political lives. “Sorry I put you through all this shit,” Johnson told the grumpy Tory MPs.

Johnson has just apologized to Parliament for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden during England’s first coronavirus lock-in in May 2020, a gathering of picnic food and drinks he thought was a “job opportunity”.

The mea culpa bought Johnson a precious time. But some of the Conservative MPs gathered in the tea room were not impressed and Johnson remains in serious political trouble. Any time he bought can apparently be borrowed.

Several MPs said Johnson was still in denial. “He said that sometimes in life you get the credit for things you do not deserve, while sometimes you also get the blame for something you do not deserve,” said one Tory MP. “He goes through his life and thinks he does not deserve the blame.”

Johnson’s uncertain grip on power was revealed just hours later when Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, asked him to resign. Senior Tories in the executive of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, met to discuss his fate. Vice President William Wragg said Johnson’s position was “untenable”.

Across the Conservative party, from former Johnson loyalists to longtime critics, some MPs have concluded that the prime minister should go, his judgment and honesty no longer trusted, his popularity with the public declining. What is less clear is when.

Many Tory MPs have said they will temporarily suspend the verdict on Johnson until the publication of a report by Sue Gray, a senior Whitehall official, on the apparent party culture in number 10 during Covid-19 restrictions. That report is unlikely to be published until next week.

But Johnson’s allies expect that Gray’s report will spread the blame widely, including to Downing Street officials, and that the prime minister will be able to escape unscathed with his work. “He will offer a creepy apology and move on,” one former cabinet minister predicted.

Even senior labor figures expect Johnson to “limp” past the Gray report. “Sue is a tough civil servant, but she’s not going to say Johnson should go to Buckingham Palace and resign,” said one Labor leader ally Sir Keir Starmer.

Indeed, Johnson is likely to use the Gray report as an excuse to wipe out some of his underperforming team – including Martin Reynolds, the head of the prime minister’s office that organized the May 2020 party – which gives the impression of ‘ a new beginning.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons Defense Committee, said Conservative MPs would welcome a recovery from Johnson’s team. “We need an update on how Number 10 works. Boris has some incredible strengths – but like any leader, he must acknowledge his weaknesses. “

But will Tory MPs use Gray’s report – which is expected to be strong in criticism of Johnson’s number 10 – to pursue an immediate leadership challenge? “It’s not a legal issue right now, but a political one,” said one government member.

The level of anger is palpable. “People have had enough of Boris,” the government member added. “When you’re so dependent on popularity and it disappears, you’re done.” Sir Roger Gale, a veteran Tory MP, said Johnson was “a dead man walking”.

But the Conservative party, despite all the anxiety circulating about the prime minister, seems at the moment psychologically unprepared to drop a leader who secured an 80-seat Commons majority in the 2019 general election.

There is no ready-made alternative prime minister. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, conveniently more than 200 miles away on Wednesday during a business visit to the South West of England and too busy supporting Johnson in local media interviews, is the bookmakers ‘favorite to be the next Tory leader, but is not’ n shoo-in not.

Foreign Minister Liz Truss and Equality Minister Michael Gove are also considered contenders. Although Truss has held booze parties for new MPs, none of the potential candidates want to be seen as responsible for “murder” and are holding them back.

Given all this, many Tory MPs returned Wednesday afternoon to their Plan A, which was hatched late last year after media reports of Downing Street parties during Covid restrictions: give Johnson up to the local council election on May 5 to turn things around, with a summer leadership challenge to follow if – as they expect – they go disastrous.

It highlights how for the moment, at least, Johnson’s enemies circle but have not yet delivered a deadly blow. This has raised hopes among the prime minister’s allies that he may have a 70 percent chance of coming out of this latest crisis of his own making.

They could see a route for Johnson, where he drives out the Gray report and then announces that he will not renew Covid restrictions in England when it expires on January 26: to delight Tory MPs with the prospect of a better post-pandemic world.

But that may be just a brief respite for Johnson, given the rising cost of living crisis focused on rising household energy bills and inflation heading for 6 percent, and the expected conservative contraction in the May 5 local election.

“His leadership is no longer viable,” said one former minister. “We have to get rid of him before he takes a load of good councilors with him.” Another Conservative MP said party candidates for the local election were calling for Johnson to be ousted.

The Tory mood at Westminster is feverish. One former cabinet minister said letters from Conservative MPs demanding a motion of no confidence in Johnson were being sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee.

With his Scottish party in full revolt and some Tory MPs in England openly calling for him to resign, the confronted prime minister is likely to become an increasingly frequent match in the Commons tea room in the coming weeks.

What were the Covid rules at the time of the Downing Street Garden Party?

Boris Johnson told the Commons that he attended the Downing Street garden drinks in May 2020 during England’s first coronavirus lockout because he “implicitly believed it was a job opportunity” rather than a party.

He made the claim, even though his general secretary, Martin Reynolds, sent e-mails to colleagues describing the event as “social-distance drinks”, urging them to “bring your own drinks!”.

Downing Street said Johnson did not see the email, claiming the event was “technically speaking” allowed under government rules, although the prime minister acknowledged that there would be millions of people who would not see it that way.

Kirsty Brimelow QC, a lawyer who has defended people charged under the Covid Emergency Laws, said the wording of Johnson’s statement indicates that it was drafted with the help of lawyers, given his potential criminal liability.

“He did not go outside his house,” she said. “However, he himself joined a number of people who were outside places where they lived when the regulations at that time forbade going outside your house, unless you had a reasonable excuse.”

While in May 2020 there was general “work from home” guidance, there were different rules for workplaces that still function – such as schools, factories, government departments or transport companies.

Although gatherings of more than two people outside the same household are prohibited in public spaces, the rule may be relaxed when it is “essential for work purposes”.

Other guidance encouraged those who could not work from home to always keep two meters apart and avoid mixing “as far as possible”. Meetings should be limited to “absolutely necessary participants”, preferably outdoors.

Even if workers have taken tea breaks in common areas, they should be separated to avoid each other.

Brimelow said that, if the legal issue is dismissed, it is difficult to argue that Johnson did not violate the workplace leadership of that time.

“I do not think anyone is trying to argue that drinking a few drinks – which involves a potential shopping trip to buy alcohol – would be a reasonable excuse,” she added. “The potential criminal liability would be that he is an accomplice to a crime.” Jim Pickard

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