Partygate: Can Boris Johnson survive yet another scandal?

Partygate controversy has taken the United Kingdom by storm. 

Named as a riff on the infamous Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon, the British political scandal saw members of the Conservative Party attend several gatherings at 10 Downing Street — despite strict COVID-19 lockdowns at the time. These gatherings included a “Bring your own booze” party, an ABBA-themed party and a birthday party for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has been linked to 6 of these gatherings, and 12 of the 16 reported gatherings came under investigation by the Metropolitan Police for possible criminal violations in January 2022. 

Johnson admits to attending these events, but claims he was under the impression that they were strictly work events and not social gatherings. Senior civil servant Sue Gray also launched an independent investigation in early January to establish a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings and whether any individual disciplinary action is required. Gray’s inquiry was supposed to be published publicly, but Metropolitan Police banned her from releasing any details about the 12 parties under investigation. 

“Some of the behavior surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” Gray said in her update inquiry at the end of January. “[They were] failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office.” 

The full report will be published once the Met investigation has concluded. Despite delaying the release of the inquiry so as not to interfere with interviews of those linked with the gatherings, no interviews have actually been conducted. Instead, questionnaires were sent out to more than 50 people, including Johnson and his wife, to give an account of what happened at those gatherings. Partygoers had 7 days to respond to these questionnaires. Many have criticized this procedure for being too lenient, giving those who attended ample time to get their stories straight and downplay events. 

This controversy prompted many Conservative MPs to call for Johnson’s resignation and to submit letters of no confidence. So far, Johnson has refused to resign his post as prime minister, claiming that the public wants him to focus on other priorities. This leaves those who want him gone with one option before the next general election in 2024: a vote of no confidence. 

A vote of no confidence is triggered when at least 54 MPs submit a letter of no confidence to the 1922 Committee, after which Johnson requires the approval of 50% of MPs to remain prime minister. If he were to lose such a vote he would be replaced through an election. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the committee, will not announce the number of letters received until the threshold has been reached, but it is understood that at least 20 letters have been sent, with 9 Tory MPs publicly announcing that they have submitted one. 

MPs were encouraged to wait until the findings of Gray’s report to send any letters, but with the delayed release of this report due to the Met investigation it is unlikely that a vote of no confidence will be held soon. One MP revealed that few letters have been submitted since the initial push and there has been a lack of recent activity. 

Johnson did offer an apology in parliament on Jan. 12, to which many of his cabinet members rallied in support. However, to many across the country, this apology was seen to have shirked responsibility; instead, shifting blame to public perception. In this apology, Johnson said the gatherings “could be said technically to fall within the guidance, [however,] there would be millions and millions of people who would not see it that way.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s fate will come down to the findings of the Met investigation. The questionnaires sent out were due on Feb. 18, but it is unclear how long it will take authorities to go through the responses and the evidence collected by Gray, which includes 300 images relating to the gatherings. If Johnson is fined he will surely face increased pressure from the public and his own MPs to resign. Any significant findings out of the investigation and report could be the trigger for more letters of no confidence to be submitted, pushing the total closer to the critical 54 letter threshold. 

Johnson’s public approval rating has collapsed since Partygate blew up, with the latest polls showing that 54% of voters believe Johnson has done a bad job as prime minister and only 29% of voters believe he has done a good job. 56% of voters also support a vote of no confidence. 

Johnson has been consulting with his lawyers to avoid being driven out in the event that he is fined. He is expected to argue that 10 Downing Street is a unique environment since it doubles as both a workplace and private residence and that he attended some of the events as part of his working hours. 

The Partygate scandal might seem trivial compared to other times Johnson has come under fire. Yet, it continues to grab major media attention and receive public backlash due to its violation of the basic principle that those who make the rules must also follow them. It also didn’t help that Johnson and his colleagues tried to downplay the situation with the claim that 10 Downing Street is unique — implying that the rules are different for them. 

This hypocrisy has roiled the British public and left many with a new distaste for Johnson. 

COVID-19 regulations have required much of the public to sacrifice valuable parts of their lives and left many others suffering from loss. Not even the Queen, who mourned the loss of her husband alone, has been unaffected by public health measures. The idea that Conservative MPs were ignoring regulations while encouraging others to isolate and limit gatherings has shown a complete disconnect to those they are meant to serve and a complete lack of compassion and integrity. 

Johnson has escaped many scrapes in the past and is attempting to do so again by lifting all remaining COVID-19 restrictions early. He likely hopes that the public’s interest in this controversy fades over the course of the Met investigation. But whether this will suffice or be too little too late remains to be seen. 

To many, this betrayal to the British public seems to be the final nail in the coffin for his political career. 

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