Ahead of the publication of Sue Gray’s report into partygate, there had been talk that the police investigation — which meant the most tricky parts of Gray’s investigation were left out — would help Boris Johnson by ensuring he got off lightly. However, anyone watching the reaction from MPs to the Prime Minister’s statement in the chamber will have been left wondering what the full report would have triggered. While the shortened report meant the Prime Minister was spared embarrassing details coming to light, it did not stop Johnson from facing a mauling from his own side.
While a number of supportive MPs asked the Prime Minister to focus on channel crossings and suggested too much time had been spent talking about parties in the Commons (despite the Prime Minister asking for this session), the sitting was defined by the criticism emanating from the Tory benches. It was notable that there was little jeering of Keir Starmer when he gave his response — instead Tory MPs sat silently. Theresa May then kicked off the Tory criticism by skewering Johnson on the summary of Gray’s report which shows three of the events being investigated by the police involving Johnson. The former prime minister asked: ‘Either he had not read the rules, or understood the rules, or thought they didn’t apply to him… which was it?’
Johnson declined to answer the question directly — a tactic he went on to adopt with other tricky questions. Former minister Andrew Mitchell told Johnson he had lost his support while Bernard Jenkin appeared to put the Prime Minister on notice — calling for a slimmed-down No. 10 and saying Johnson would be judged on delivery over the next few months. Other Tory MPs joined in calls for a return to cabinet government and a move away from No. 10 aides holding too much power. While Johnson promised that he would change how Downing Street operates, he wouldn’t go into details of hirings or firings.
Some of the most uncomfortable moments came from those Tory MPs who spoke of their own loss. Aaron Bell, a 2019-er, spoke of his own grandmother’s funeral — where only ten people could attend in May 2020 — before asking ‘does the Prime Minister think I’m a fool?’
There were MPs who came out to defend Johnson. A regular refrain from these Tories was that Johnson had got the big calls right. However, other defences weren’t as helpful as they could have been. Rob Roberts, the former Tory MP suspended over sexual harassment claims, put in a defence of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, another 2019 MP Katharine Fletcher ended up asking the Prime Minister if he agreed with her constituents that he was a ‘wally’ but that it was more important to focus on Russia than cake.
The trickiest part came on the question of the publication of the full report. Johnson faced several questions both from Labour and his own side asking him to commit to publishing the rest of Gray’s report once the police investigation concludes. He refrained from doing so repeatedly. Where Johnson can take comfort is that the majority of the criticism came from MPs who have been frustrated with his leadership for some time. It follows that no ultra-loyalists turned on the Prime Minister.
Johnson is not out of the woods. There are Tory MPs who say Johnson will lose their support should he fail to publish the full report. But if he does eventually publish it, more MPs could turn. The saga will rumble on with the police investigation — which includes events Johnson attended. It’s clear from today’s exchanges that when it comes to Johnson’s position the jury’s still out.
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