All tenants of 10 Downing Street know that British politics is driven by combat each Wednesday at Prime Minister's Questions. Faced with a crisis, leaders must display strength and conviction to friend and foe alike. Betray weakness and they are doomed. In the scandal over illicit parties during Covid restrictions, has a bedraggled Boris Johnson got what it takes?
On Monday, a downcast prime minister cringed before the cameras and offered his feeblest excuse yet for attending a party at No. 10 during lockdown: No one had explained the rules to him. His own government had devised those rules. One former Cabinet colleague and Brexit ally, Tory MP David Davis, urged Johnson to quit, quoting the words used by an ally of Winston Churchill to dismiss Neville Chamberlain: "You have sat there too long for all the good you have done — in God's name go."
Johnson boasted of all the good he had done his country and his party — "getting Brexit done," the biggest Tory majority for 35 years, and the rollout of one of the most successful Covid vaccine programs in the West. But as they say in politics, if you want gratitude, get a dog.
That same morning the prime minister's future was hanging by a thread. A group of young Conservative MPs, who credit their party leader with winning former Labour "Red Wall" seats in the north of England at the last election, were plotting his downfall. For Johnson is now a curse, not a blessing.
Many Labour voters switched to Johnson because he posed as the enemy of an entitled liberal elite who was thwarting the verdict of the Brexit referendum. Now he has been discovered partying while their loved ones lay dying. One opinion poll estimates that of 45 Red Wall seats, only three would be held by the Conservatives if there were an election tomorrow.
The "Red Wallers," however, pulled back from the brink of calling for a vote of no confidence in Johnson after one of them, Christian Wakeford, defected to Labour on Wednesday. Tribal loyalty came first. Labour didn't mind — they would prefer a weakened Johnson to remain in office as their opponent.
Now the political class holds its collective breath, awaiting the next drama to come — publication of the official report into No. 10 parties by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray. Will she judge the prime minister more guilty than just careless? Westminster insiders are already calling this period "Waiting for Sue Gray," in reference to Samuel Beckett's agonizing play "Waiting for Godot." But what if, as in Godot, no judgment ever comes?
It is claimed that Gray is not a typical mandarin. She once took time off from the civil service to work in a pub in her husband's native Northern Ireland. Asked in a BBC interview why she had been passed over as head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Gray boasted: "Why didn't I get the job? I'm not sure I'll ever quite know. But I suspect people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger or a disrupter. I am both."
Still, it is best not to have too high of expectations. Civil servants called to investigate the foul-ups of British prime ministers don't usually call for their heads, and even when there have been mistakes and other misdemeanours, the main head does not always roll.
Take Margaret Thatcher, who won the biggest political gamble of her life in 1982 by sending a naval task force to recover the Falklands Islands after Argentina seized them. But that invasion took place only after her government signalled it was willing to cede sovereignty over the islands and unwilling to defend them.
Lord Franks, a civil servant with experience papering over the cracks in the establishment, wrote the official post-mortem into the conflict. His introduction and conclusion noted a great British victory. The bulk of the report, however, catalogued the ministerial errors that had preceded it. In their usual hurry, the press and political class mined the easy-to-read bits. The Iron Lady, basking in her recent triumph, jumped to the final paragraph that exonerated her and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
For Tony Blair, the inquiry was into military victory gone sour. Three days after Baghdad fell to Allied forces in the second Gulf war, I remember sitting down to lunch with the head of the Civil Service at the time, Andrew Turnbull, to ask about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible casus belli. "Why don't you just 'rejoice, rejoice'?" he joked, quoting Thatcher's triumphant words during the Falklands campaign.
Two official inquiries later, into whether the government had "sexed up" stories about the still missing WMD, Blair toughed it out. The first report, written by a judge handpicked for his work in Northern Ireland on security issues, never got to the heart of the politics involved. The second, authored by the mandarin's mandarin, Lord Butler, condemned Blair's casual "sofa government" style and concluded that crucial intelligence used to justify the war with Iraq was unreliable. No killer punch, however, was thrown.
Blair's unshakeable belief in the righteousness of his cause and the size of his Commons majority protected him. The devil in the details of the report was never really exploited.
Some MPs believe that Gray will also fail to hand down an unambiguous verdict of "guilty" on the prime minister. What did Johnson know when he wandered for 25 minutes into the middle of a party in the Downing Street garden? Unless another piece of email evidence emerges that makes clear he knew he was breaking the rules, it will be hard to "convict" him.
Others expect that the report will signal a catastrophic revolt by Johnson's party critics. They need 54 letters from Tory MPs to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee to trigger a vote of no confidence in their leader.
Johnson has pledged to fight on even if the signatures are secured. That pledge, by itself, may stop some rebels from sending their letters. They will remember that Thatcher's successor John Major survived a similar challenge and a subsequent leadership contest, but his government was holed below the water thereafter. Johnson hopes his large majority gives him the springboard for recovery.
Other Conservative MPs, alarmed by No. 10's chaos, are demanding reassurance. The prime minister's allies have thrown "red meat" to the right-wing of his party — e.g., attacks on the BBC are perennially popular — but some of the proposals, such as using the Royal Navy to intercept migrants crossing from France, look like stunts. Can the prime minister reach back to something fundamental — or is it all just a high wire act?
Two years ago Johnson won big because he had invented a political program that appealed to both affluent southern voters and voters in the north who broke their traditional alignment with Labour. In a three-decade career of glittering successes and pratfalls, Johnson has bounced back from disaster, convinced of the durability of his unique personal brand. The Gray report and its aftermath will tell us whether he still has the gift of resilience — or whether the great entertainer is all partied out.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.