The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s apologetic defence: so begins an era of political chaos
Once again the country finds itself paralysed by a crisis in the Conservative party. Tory MPs took a gamble on Boris Johnson’s personality in order to gain the benefit of his Brexit credentials. In 2019, Mr Johnson did lead his party to victory in the general election. But that bet has not paid off subsequently because of who he is: an incompetent rogue, disloyal to almost everyone but himself. His government has stumbled from crisis to crisis in recent months, wrecking its authority.
Mr Johnson deals with scandals by hunkering down and waiting for the storm to blow itself out. That is the approach he adopted on Wednesday. After weeks of dodging questions, Mr Johnson offered an apology – and a defence – for spending 25 minutes at a boozy evening event in May 2020 for dozens of people in the Downing Street garden in breach of the law during the first Covid lockdown.
However, the Tory leader used lawyerly phrasing to imply that he had, at the time, considered this to be work. This was not a plausible rebuttal, and will not wash with the public. Voters will surely only think that Mr Johnson was at an illegal No 10 garden party when their loved ones were dying alone in hospitals. The lockdown regulations were in place to protect the public and squash the spread of the virus in an unvaccinated population. There could not have been one rule for the public and another for the prime minister. However, voters have no immediate opportunity to evict Mr Johnson from Downing Street.
If the prime minister’s apology is genuine, he should accept he broke the law. He almost certainly lied to parliament and deceived voters for weeks. There has to be a price. Labour and the Lib Dems have called for him to go. Mr Johnson is not someone given to resigning. The police could issue a fine. That would be a resigning matter for a prime minister. If Mr Johnson were secure in his job he might shrug it off. But he isn’t.
Instead, the prime minister sought shelter behind the investigation by Sue Gray, a senior Cabinet Office official. This is perhaps because Ms Gray is unlikely to rule on Mr Johnson’s defence – that he “thought” the people drinking in No 10’s garden were at a work event. It is more likely that Ms Gray resigns because she thought Mr Johnson was not taking her inquiry seriously than the prime minister departs because of its findings.
Mr Johnson can be turfed out of office by Tory MPs – and it is they who need an acceptable explanation for May 2020 to appease angry voters. The odds that Conservative backbenchers change their leader shorten as those of their re-election lengthen. While 15% of the parliamentary party could trigger a no-confidence vote in Mr Johnson, he will be safe – for 12 months – if he has 180 MPs backing him.
Many are in open revolt. A few hours after his statement, Douglas Ross, leader of Scottish Conservatives, called for Mr Johnson to resign. A senior backbencher, William Wragg, followed suit. The irony is that Mr Johnson was elected to put an end to an era of political chaos that began with the 2016 referendum on EU membership. However, his shortcomings have ensured Tory rebellions will become part of political life.
Factions now vie for party supremacy against a backdrop of post-pandemic rows over net zero and Brexit. Mr Johnson no doubt hopes to fight May’s local elections as Tory leader. But it is now clear that the prime minister grievously betrayed the trust of the nation at a time of national crisis. If he stays in Downing Street, it will only intensify the divisions in Britain over how to run the economy and manage the country.