The problem with the latest scandal plaguing Boris Johnson is that it revolves around parties. Were it centered around something grayer—more complex, more esoterically political—it might not have ignited such fury. But as James Forsyth writes in The Spectator, Partygate “is an issue everyone can understand.” Britain’s collective understanding is this: During lockdown, Boris Johnson’s political party repeatedly attended actual parties. There have been allegations of quizzes, canapés, wine-and-cheese nights. The evening before Prince Philip’s funeral (where the queen mourned her husband of 73 years alone), Downing Street reportedly hosted two sets of leaving drinks. Shelley Williams-Walker, Johnson’s head of operations, was dubbed “DJ SWW” for her playlist management. Another staffer wheeled a suitcase to a supermarket on the Strand, and packed it with wine. Downing Street has now issued an apology to the queen, and the prime minister’s spokesperson said it was “deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning.”
The party that has caused the most controversy was a May 2020 BYOB gathering in the Downing Street garden—because it was attended by Johnson himself. Constructed in 1736 and largely sequestered from public view, Downing Street’s garden recently rose to prominence for another coronavirus controversy. It was there that Dominic Cummings (Johnson’s former confidant; now his closest enemy) explained that he had broken lockdown to drive to a town called Barnard Castle (the trip, he said, was to test his eyesight). Five days before this notorious presser, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, emailed about 100 staff: “After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening.” The party started at 6 p.m., and roughly 40 guests arrived, many armed with bottles. According to The Times of London, one colleague joked that, hopefully, there was no drone surveillance going on.
Inevitably, it was covert surveillance that sparked Partygate in the first place. A drip-feed of leaks started before Christmas when ITV obtained footage of Johnson’s spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, rehearsing a press briefing with colleagues. Quizzed about rumors of a Downing Street Christmas party, Stratton replied, jokingly, “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.” Stratton resigned, and some wondered if she’d been scapegoated when reports of other events emerged. The Daily Mail mocked up a Christmas calendar to juxtapose those festivities with the concurrent tightening of lockdown restrictions. December 10: The Department for Education hosts a Christmas party. December 16: Household mixing indoors is banned. December 18: Downing Street holds an alleged party complete with secret-Santa presents. December 19: Christmas is effectively canceled. When senior civil servant Simon Case was tasked with investigating the slew of illicit parties, he had to recuse himself: An event had reportedly taken place within his own office.
Any hopes that the heat would cool over Christmas were proven to be ill-founded when news of the BYOB party started circulating. On Wednesday, before dodging questions about his rumored attendance, Johnson gave a delicately worded apology to Parliament. Its basic premise was that he didn’t realize the event was a party—he thought it was a work event, and he wanted to take the opportunity to thank staff for their efforts during the grueling period: “I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognized that—even if it could have been said technically to fall within the guidance—there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.” At the time of the party (May 2020), Britain was in the grip of a joyless lockdown. Weddings, large funerals, socializing and celebrating in large groups—they were banned. Parties weren’t allowed.
After Wednesday’s speech, Johnson headed to the Commons tearoom to try and staunch signs of rebellion within his party. According to The Times of London, his contrition gave way to defiance. “Sometimes we take the credit for things we don’t deserve and this time we’re taking hits for something we don’t deserve,” he reportedly told colleagues. Some lawmakers didn’t share this perspective. “I have no words that can adequately express how angry I am at the ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ attitude that appears to have prevailed in Downing Street,” said M.P. Caroline Nokes. Her colleague Johnny Mercer argued the “humiliating” debacle doesn’t reflect the “majority of my colleagues who at least try and lead by example.” Douglas Ross, leader of the Conservatives Scottish arm (a country where Johnson is not popular) was spitting. “He is the prime minister—it is his government that put these rules in place, and he has to be held to account for his actions,” he said, declaring he was going to write a letter of no confidence calling for Johnson’s resignation.
This leads to a question occupying numerous British journalists: What happens next? One tabled possibility is that 53 other Conservative M.P.s also write letters to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, triggering a vote of no confidence. Realistically, it’s unlikely the threshold of 54 letters will be met—Johnson’s credibility may be under question but, still in his first term, he led the Conservatives to a landslide victory in the last election.
Another conceivable threat lies within Johnson’s own cabinet which, naturally, is stuffed with people who secretly envisage themselves in the top job. A couple of the most-chatted-about threats are Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Sunak’s absence from the benches during Johnson’s apology was widely noted (he was on a well-timed trip to North Devon). By Wednesday evening, Sunak had clearly decided not to resign in protest. But he didn’t exactly throw full support behind the prime minister either, posting the lukewarm tweet: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”
Indeed, everyone seems to be biding their time until the publication of a forthcoming inquiry into the pandemic parties. Produced by the aforementioned Sue Gray, a civil servant with a fearsomely impeccable reputation, the report is unlikely to contain any explosive findings that will dislodge Johnson (who got ahead of the story with his Parliamentary apology). Instead, it may spotlight Downing Street’s hazy line between working and drinking, and perhaps query Johnson’s judgment for going to the BYOB party.