Boris Johnson may be celebrating the birth of a baby daughter but that doesn’t mean the pressure on him is eased. Instead, the Prime Minister is fighting on three fronts going into the weekend. The first is the alleged Downing Street parties with more claims emerging that there were several events. While cabinet secretary Simon Case is investigating, it’s already looking tricky for key Downing Street staff, with ITV reporting that Downing Street director of communications Jack Doyle gave a speech and handed out awards. While No. 10 figures suggest a speech is a pretty regular occurrence, the real issue with the claims is that Doyle is the person who will have been in charge of the communications over the party claims — and the No. 10 line is no such party occurred.
Next up, Johnson is facing one of his largest Tory rebellions to date next week when MPs vote on the new Covid Plan B measures. Over 50 MPs have spoken out against the restrictions so far and that number is expected to grow. What’s more many members of the payroll are very unhappy about what’s been proposed so even if they don’t resign and vote against it, there could be a high number of abstentions. Johnson should still be able to pass the measures given that Labour has suggested they will back them. However, getting your plans through on opposition votes is an uncomfortable place for any prime minister.
Finally, the issue that is actually causing the most alarm in government relates to the Downing Street flat refurbishment. When this story first emerged earlier this year of who paid for the expensive redecoration of the flat Johnson shares with his wife Carrie, ministers insisted there had been no wrongdoing (and that it was a Westminster bubble story). The Prime Minister’s standards adviser Lord Geidt carried out an investigation in which he cleared Johnson of misconduct but said he had acted unwisely. Geidt concluded that Johnson had been unaware of who was paying for the refurbishment. However, a report by the Electoral Commission appears to contradict that claim — it says the Prime Minister sent a WhatsApp message to the Tory donor in charge of arranging funding to seek further payments towards work on the flat.
In response to the reports, Labour is calling on Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, to formally investigate. This is the same standards body that Downing Street recently attempted to shake-up in response to Owen Paterson’s suspension. Given that attempt failed spectacularly (with No. 10 having to U-turn and Paterson quitting the Commons), Stone retains her powers to investigate and in extreme circumstances recommend the suspension of an MP.
But the thing to watch out for in the immediate term is whether Lord Geidt stays in the job. Geidt is reported to be considering his position as he attempts to work out whether or not he was misled in his investigation. If he does quit, it will be a significant moment. Johnson has already lost one standards adviser — Sir Alex Allan — following the inquiry into allegations of bullying against Priti Patel. If Geidt goes, more MPs are likely to stick their head above the parapet and voice concerns.
Now the Electoral Commission has reached its decision, the next stage in the saga rests with both Geidt and Stone — crucially both of whom are beyond Johnson’s control.
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