Speaking in the House of Commons, and against a backdrop of anger and mockery, the prime minister apologised for the “bring your own booze” gathering in the No 10 garden in May 2020, adding: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
Now what for the PM? Here are some options.
Tough it out
Business-as-normal seems to be the immediate response. In the days since details of the May 20 event emerged last week, Johnson has repeatedly used the words “Sue Gray” as a shield.
The senior civil servant is investigating the series of alleged lockdown-busting Whitehall parties, and the PM’s port-in-the-storm has been to say he was waiting for her conclusions. In a packed Commons chamber, that remained the position.
“All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into (May 20) and several others so that the full facts can be established,” he told MPs.
Despite radio silence in the immediate aftermath of his statement, Cabinet colleagues were out in force on social media showing their support – and the tenor of their tweets re-iterated the Sue Gray defence.
Nadine Dorries, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid supported the apology, while deputy prime minister Dominic Raab told broadcasters that Johnson would be in post “for many years to come”.
The prime minister himself chatted to MPs in the Commons tea room after his appearance in the Chamber in an effort to shore up support, and a goal could be to get to May’s local elections unscathed.
Labour leader Keir Starmer called on the prime minister to quit. “The party’s over, prime minister,” he said in response to the statement.
“The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?”
The embattled prime minister also faced calls to depart from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.
Starmer’s call might not be genuine, though. Despite Johnson’s reputation as “the Heineken politician” who can reach parts others can’t (see the 2019 election triumphs in Labour heartlands), his poll rating is wounded. Does Labour really want a lame PM put out of his misery?
Just to confirm, Johnson is not leaving of his own volition at this stage. On Wednesday, his press secretary insisted that he was not a liar and “he is not resigning”. Unless more revelations emerge – and they have been coming daily, and involving scandals beyond “partygate” – that seems likely to remain the status quo.
An internal Tory backlash is already apparent. Three MPs called for Johnson to go within hours of the statement. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross called for him to quit while another MP branded the prime minister a “dead man walking”. The powerful backbench Tory 1922 Committee was holding a regular meeting on Wednesday, with the prime minister’s future likely to be the only topic discussed.
If the PM does not quit as Conservative party leader, the second way to trigger a leadership contest is if 15% of Tory MPs write to the chair of the 1922 Committee (currently Graham Brady) saying they no longer have confidence in the leader.
A vote of no confidence is then held, with Conservative MPs voting in support or against the leader. A leader who loses a confidence vote is not allowed to take part in the subsequent leadership contest.
Based on the current parliamentary maths, 54 letters would prompt a confidence vote in Johnson – and some appear to be trickling in.
And while some Cabinet ministers circled the wagons in support of Johnson, it was not total. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader, was notably absent from the Commons and tweeted from Devon: “Excited to be in Ilfracombe this morning.”
Westminster watchers were also keeping a keen eye on the feed of Liz Truss, another said to covet the top job, who was also yet to fall in behind the PM. It’s worth remembering the loss of support of Tory heavyweights helped bring Margaret Thatcher down.
Call an election
A dash to the ballot box is the nuclear and – most unlikely – option. The next general election is not scheduled until May 2024, but the fixed term parliament’s act that sets the five-year term is a polite fiction – as the snap 2017 and 2019 votes showed.
A battered Johnson could attempt to get a fresh mandate from the public, perhaps if he thinks the scandal is only of interest to the Westminster “bubble”. But the electorate’s anger is palpable. A Savanta ComRes poll on Monday had the proportion of voters who think Johnson should resign rising by 12 points since details of the BYOB party emerged. The controversy has, as they say, cut through.
Despite mass Covid-19 deaths, Johnson was in the public’s good graces following a “bounce” during the early vaccine roll-out. But Labour now has a sustained, commanding poll lead and fretful Tories are unlikely to want to go to the country with the January 2022 version of Johnson at the helm.