What The Hell Just Happened? Inside Boris Johnson's Chaotic Week

It started with the watered-down Sue Gray report and ended with a mass exodus from Number 10 and Boris Johnson on the brink.
Boris Johnson's chaotic week started badly and quickly got worse.
Boris Johnson's chaotic week started badly and quickly got worse.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

It was Harold Wilson who famously said that a week is a long time in politics.

How quaint that observation seems now. These days, an afternoon in Westminster can feel like a lifetime.

Take Thursday this week as an example. At lunchtime, Boris Johnson still had a policy chief, a communications director, a chief of staff and a principal private secretary.

By 9pm, all four – Munira Mirza, Jack Doyle, Dan Rosenfield and Martin Reynolds – had departed, one voluntarily, the others less so. It was a dizzying few hours, but also the kind of chaos we have come to expect from Boris Johnson’s dysfunctional administration.

Remember Monday?

But let’s rewind to the neolithic period, or “Monday morning” as it’s more commonly known, when things in No. 10 were relatively becalmed. The PM had enjoyed a stress-free weekend, and the expectation was that Sue Gray’s imminent report into partygate would be manageable from a Downing Street perspective, largely because the Metropolitan Police had asked for it to be watered down so as not to prejudice their own investigation into alleged lockdown-busting parties in No10 and Whitehall.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that Gray had provided Johnson with an “update” on her inquiry, and so we waited for it to be posted on the government’s website, followed shortly thereafter by the PM making a statement to parliament.

When the 12-page document landed on gov.uk at 2.20pm, all hope Downing Street had of being able to ride it out quickly evaporated. Sue Gray managed a pack a lot into a relatively short report, revealing that police were investigating no fewer than a dozen gatherings, including one in the Downing Street flat Johnson shares with his wife, Carrie, and their two children.

She also blamed “failures of leadership and judgment” for the scandal, as well as the “excessive consumption of alcohol” by government staff.

Significantly, Gray made it clear that once the Met investigation is out of the way, she will deliver a longer, more detailed account of the findings of her and her team.

Westminster’s sharks could already scent blood in the water, and so the Commons was packed for the PM’s statement, delivered just after 3.30pm. He said he accepted the contents of Gray’s update and, in response, would be introducing a radical shake-up of the Downing Street operation.

A new office of the prime minister will be created with a new permanent secretary to lead No.10 to simplify the chain of command, Johnson said, as well as a review of the code of conduct for the civil service and special advisers.

In his response, Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “By routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools, he held people’s sacrifice in contempt, he showed himself unfit for office.”

The Savile smear

Johnson eventually backed down after smearing Starmer.
Johnson eventually backed down after smearing Starmer.
House of Commons - PA Images via Getty Images

But Johnson was ready for his political rival and, despite misgivings from his own advisers, chose to repeat a conspiracy theory which began in the darkest reaches of far-right websites.

Referring to Starmer’s past role as Director of Public Prosecutions, he claimed he had “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.

A cursory check revealed that the accusation was erroneous, but the damage was already done. Labour MPs, as you would expect, were appalled, but more worryingly for the PM, so were many on his own side.

The uneasiness on the Tory benches was apparent as the PM took questions after his statement, with a noticeable lack of support from his own side and former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell informing him that “he no longer enjoys my support”.

Later that evening, Johnson addressed the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers, and afterwards he seemed to have steadied the ship somewhat. But by Tuesday morning, the fallout from the Jimmy Savile smear was beginning to gain momentum.

On Sky News, Starmer described it as “a ridiculous slur peddled by right wing trolls”, but Johnson’s spokesman sparked yet more anger by insisting the PM stood by his remarks.

By now, No. 10 were struggling to maintain control of Tory MPs, with Peter Aldous becoming the latest to call on him to go. Lawyers for Savile’s victims then joined the wave of criticism, saying they were “appalled and disgusted” by the PM’s behaviour.

The Savile row was now dominating the political debate, with Cabinet ministers forced to defend Johnson’s conduct in every interview. Deputy PM Dominic Raab refused to repeat it on the Today programme (where, unlike in the Commons, there is no parliamentary privilege) while on Wednesday Michael Gove insisted his boss had done nothing to apologise for.

’30 or 40 letters of no confidence’

Graham Brady, Chairman of the Conservative Party 1922 Committee. One MP estimates Brady the number of no confidence letters received is “probably in the high 30s or low 40s”.
Graham Brady, Chairman of the Conservative Party 1922 Committee. One MP estimates Brady the number of no confidence letters received is “probably in the high 30s or low 40s”.
Phil Noble via Reuters

No sooner had he done so than Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the Defence Select Committee, cited Savile as one of the reasons why he too was submitting a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to 1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady.

Another MP who has also sent a letter in but not admitted it in public, told HuffPost UK that the number in Brady’s possession was “probably in the high 30s or low 40s”. The number needed to trigger a vote is 54.

Johnson now seemed to be in a war of attrition with his MPs. After doubling down on the Savile smear at PMQs, two more of them – Anthony Mangnall and Gary Streeter – announced that they had also put letters in.

In a sign of the paralysis at the heart of government, the row completely overshadowed the launch of the much-vaunted levelling up white paper, a flagship initiative which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Johnson administration’s mission to close the wealth gap between the south east and the rest of the country.

Seemingly aware of the need to staunch the bleeding, on Thursday Johnson performed yet another U-turn by backing down on the Savile claims, insisting he now accepted that Starmer had no personal involvement in the notorious sex offender escaping justice.

Munira Mirza resigns

Munira Mirza was one of Johnson's closet aides.
Munira Mirza was one of Johnson's closet aides.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

But that was too late to prevent the resignation of Munira Mirza, the No. 10 policy chief who had been at Johnson’s side for 13 years. In a devastating resignation letter, she said: “I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice.

“There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse.

“You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”

She was followed by Doyle, Rosenfield and Reynolds – the principal private secretary dubbed “Party Marty” for organising the “bring your own booze” bash in the No. 10 garden during the first lockdown.

The PM’s spokesman insisted that those three departures had been “mutually agreed” before Mirza’s own resignation, but there is no doubt that it all contributed to the impression that this is a Downing Street operation in complete meltdown.

Sensing an opportunity, Chancellor and wannabe PM Rishi Sunak – who earlier on Thursday had unveiled a £9bn package to cut council tax and energy bills – told a press conference that he would not have made the Savile comments himself. His message to MPs and party members was clear: pick me if you want a return to political normality.

A fifth Downing Street adviser, Elena Narozanski from the No. 10 policy unit, quit on Friday, and this time there was nothing “mutual” about it. She had simply had enough.

One veteran Conservative MP told HuffPost UK that despite everything, Johnson will not quit. “He’ll still fight to the end, however long that is and whatever the collateral damage,” they said.

In an attempt to calm tensions among his staff, Johnson addressed them in the Cabinet Room on Friday morning, insisting the shake-up was all part of his plans to get the government back on track in the wake of the Gray report. With a typically Johnsonian flourish, he even quoted Rafiki, the Lion King character by declaring: “Change is good.”

With two more MPs publicly calling for him to go yesterday - former Johnson backer Aaron Bell and the normally-loyal Nick Gibb - and more preparing to break cover in the days ahead, the problem for the prime minister is that increasing numbers of his own colleagues agree with that sentiment, and the change they want to see is at the very top of their party.


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