“Indefensible”, “contemptuous” and “perilous” comprise just a selection of adjectives used to describe the latest scandal to colour Boris Johnson’s already marred administration.
The leaked email sent on 20th May 2020 by Johnson’s Principle Private Secretary, inviting over 100 Number 10 staff to a ‘bring your own booze’ garden party has no doubt contributed to the recent fall in Tory support in the polls. And today’s revelations that Downing Street staff held two parties the night before Prince Philip’s funeral – at a time when Covid restrictions banned indoor mixing – will come as a further blow to the Prime Minister’s reputation.
So, can Boris Johnson survive these latest allegations? Or is he, as described by Sir Roger Gale, a ‘dead man walking’?
Of course, ‘Partygate’ is only the latest in a series of scandals to have damaged Johnson’s leadership; it comes just over a month after ITV released damning footage of Allegra Stratton’s dress rehearsal press conference.
But while the Prime Minister awaits the result of Sue Gray’s independent inquiry into alleged lockdown breaches within government, his administration faces longer-term challenges that could be of far greater electoral importance than the irritation of the 24-hour news cycle.
The country is already facing a cost-of-living squeeze. Most urgently, energy bills are now predicted to rise by approximately £600 per household by April and the green tax burden is estimated to increase by £5.2bn in the next two years. So far, Johnson has resisted cross-party calls to enact measures such as cutting VAT on fuel but is yet to communicate an alternative – or show that he grasps the gravity of the situation.
When it comes to Brexit, the very issue that brought Johnson to victory in 2019, the government now seems inert. Finding a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the cost of which is estimated to be £900 million, continues to prove elusive, and our regulatory environment looks disappointingly unaltered.
On top of this, party infighting over policy is chipping away at the Prime Minister’s authority. The Covid Recovery and Net Zero Scrutiny groups, totalling approximately 98 MPs, have been outspoken against government policy and the administration’s ideological trajectory. The head of the former group, Mark Harper, issued a stark warning to the Prime Minister that he will face a large-scale rebellion if Plan B restrictions are not lifted after January 26th.
These rebellions, together with high-profile resignations such as Lord Frost’s, paint a picture of internal disarray that hardly bodes well for the Party’s future electoral prospects, let alone Johnson’s short-term prognosis.
Meanwhile, the costs of Covid restrictions are coming home to roost. Lockdowns and subsequent government spending to save damaged sectors, have taken a dramatic toll on the economy and our public finances.
According to government statistics, the UK’s gross domestic product declined by 9.7 per cent in 2020. Since then, it has bounced back, surpassing its pre-pandemic level for the first time in November. However, the recovery likely faltered in December and January, due to Omicron and the government’s Plan B measures, which may bring GDP down below pre-Covid levels once more.
Added to this, public disillusionment with the NHS is growing. Nearly 6 million people are now waiting for hospital treatment, over 300,000 of whom have endured over a year waiting. Mandatory vaccinations risk further chaos with a potential mass exodus of staff. If Johnson is to win back trust and support, ameliorating the backlog and ensuring the NHS is fit for purpose is a non-negotiable. But this will require serious policy discussions over healthcare reform, which the government has avoided thus far.
Regardless of whether Johnson and his team are found to have technically broken lockdown rules, if the government fails to tackle the economic and regulatory woes facing us, the not-so-distant future of Conservatism looks grim.
With the pandemic slowing and leadership predictions making headlines, the Party should take stock, return to first principles and assess Johnson’s premiership. Conservative MPs now find themselves at a fork in the road: one route leads to continued high spending, mounting debt and likely electoral wilderness, and the other, to a revitalised political force led by discernible values encouraging innovation, individuality and prosperity.