Downing Street parties: How Boris Johnson may have already damaged Tory chances in local elections – John McLellan
A friend in public relations might only have been half-joking on Thursday when he messaged to say, “MI5 and the Palace helpful in putting out content today”, but it would certainly have taken something like the magnitude of Chinese communists paying hundreds of thousands to infiltrate the top of the Labour Party and the Queen stripping her son of his titles to knock Boris Johnson off the top of the news agenda.
Prince Andrew has been clapped in virtual irons, and President Xi can save his renminbi because the scandal of the Downing Street knees-up/outdoor team building exercises with suitcases of wine threatens more instability in the UK than any secret agent with suitcases full of Chinese wonga.
It might not have felt like that on Monday when ITV News revealed the email from the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary inviting 100 Downing Street staffers to a BYOB alfresco bash during the first lockdown.
Nor on Tuesday when Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the Prime Minister would have to resign if it was proved he had attended. Or after he duly called for the Prime Minister’s resignation and Michael Gove flippantly told the 1922 Committee that Mr Ross was “in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London”.
But the risk of a calamitous schism within the Conservative Party should have been much clearer when the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, took that as his cue to attack Mr Ross as “a lightweight figure” that evening.
As the ministerial waggons circled around Mr Johnson, so too did the MSPs rally to their leader, setting Downing Street against Northumberland Street, the Scottish Conservatives HQ.
It’s understood Mr Gove called Mr Ross to patch things up, while Scotland Secretary Alister Jack sensed the danger and described the Scottish leader as “far from a lightweight… a very serious politician”.
Saying he’d jumped the gun conceded there’s a gun to jump, but he didn’t criticise Mr Rees-Mogg directly. By contrast, a furious MSP Jamie Green said Mr Rees-Mogg should “have a long lie down, preferably not in the House of Commons”.
Although 27 of the 31 Tory MSPs backed their leader’s call for Mr Johnson’s resignation, it wasn’t clear then and it’s less clear now what happens if Mr Johnson toughs it out which, judging by leaks from the investigation into the Downing Street parties, looks highly likely.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to conclude there was no criminality and avoid judgement on potential ministerial code breaches, much like Irish prosecutor James Hamilton’s report got Nicola Sturgeon off the code hook.
Mr Ross’s resignation call may be a consistent, principled stand following his resignation from junior ministry after Dominic Cumming’s lockdown-busting trip to Barnard Castle in 2020, but he wasn’t Scottish leader at that point.
With the council elections less than four months away, if Mr Johnson stays then Scottish Tory candidates are representing two leaders whose relationship has collapsed and if the MSP group is representative of the party as a whole, then nearly 90 per cent of them will be campaigning on behalf of a UK leader they oppose.
The easy answer is there is only one party and one leader who should always command loyalty, but the implications of a regime of absolute deference were fully exposed on both sides of the trial and acquittal of Alex Salmond.
Mr Johnson has never played any game but by his own rules and serial dissension was what took him to Number 10, and to a great extent none of this should be any surprise; in Brexit and trouncing the Labour Party he delivered what he promised, but so too has he delivered everything else expected of him.
Council candidates will be concentrating on matters for which local authorities are responsible and are committed to the campaign, but party volunteers without whom there is no campaign are not tied in; they need to be motivated, and again using the MSP group as a sample, if 90 per cent of them want rid of the Prime Minister they are less likely to go out door-knocking if they expect relentless negativity, or indeed aggression, even from their own supporters, towards a national leader they have no desire to defend.
While Scottish volunteers have the incentive of stemming the tide of nationalism and seeing off the threat of a second independence referendum, the reaction of SNP politicians to the jibes against Douglas Ross show just how so-called blue-on-blue attacks are an open goal for the SNP.
Some ultra-loyal Conservatives will say it’s Douglas Ross’s fault for speaking out, but with public opinion swinging against Mr Johnson, distancing was probably the least-worst option. It certainly raised Mr Ross’s profile and he too must tough it out.
These are extraordinary times, partly because we have an extraordinary Prime Minister and the allegations keep coming; new revelations about drunken parties in the Number 10 basement the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, when indoor gatherings were banned, include an allegation that they were typical of regular drinking sessions on Fridays over the preceding year which suggests a speakeasy culture in Downing Street during lockdown for which Mr Johnson cannot continue washing his hands of responsibility.
He cut a beaten, diminished figure on Wednesday, and with Labour now polling a ten-point lead it will take something stunning which doesn’t involve further alienating core supporters to turn it around.
Having set their stall out so clearly, the Holyrood group is relying on Mr Johnson’s tenure ending sooner than later, otherwise corrosive chatter about separate parties will only grow.
Most observers believe Mr Johnson will be gone by summer if the May council elections are a disaster, which puts members in the same position as footballers who can get rid of the manager by dodging tackles. If that’s not a mark of leadership failure, I don’t know what is.
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.