British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not going to leave his post because of the scandal surrounding parties on Downing Street in the midst of COVID quarantine, one of which has been called “Wine Friday”. Despite the calls of the opposition and criticism from some of his associates, the Conservative Party is sure that it will not be possible to dismiss the politician. At the same time, experts interviewed by Izvestia note that the scandal nevertheless hit the prime minister’s personal prestige hard – now, in order to strengthen his position and lead his party, as he planned, to the next elections, he needs success in the eyes of the voter.
“He won’t retire”
“I would like to once again apologize to the House of Commons and to the whole country for taking part in a short meeting during lunch on June 19, 2020 in the Cabinet Room, for which I received a fine. And also, Mr. Speaker, I want to say that I take full responsibility for everything that happened in my presence, ”British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made such a statement in the lower house of parliament on May 25.
With this apology, the politician reacted to the results of an internal investigation, which since January 2022 was conducted by an employee of the secretariat of the government, Sue Gray, the results were published that day. The 60-page document focuses on the party scandal that took place at 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence) at the height of the COVID pandemic, while ordinary citizens, observing quarantine restrictions, could not visit each other and even attend the funerals of deceased relatives.
A parallel police investigation found that there were eight such gatherings, six in 2020 and two in 2021. Moreover, the last took place on April 16 – exactly before the funeral of Prince Philip, wife of Queen Elizabeth II. In her presentation, Sue Gray cites excerpts from e-mails and WhatsApp messages exchanged between employees to arrange events; indicates the chronology of the meetings and their details, correlating them with the restrictions that were in effect at those periods.
“There was food and alcohol that employees purchased and brought with them. Some of them drank excessively. The event was crowded and noisy <…>, for example, she describes the meeting on December 18, 2020, called “wine Friday”. “The cleaner who came to this room the next morning noticed that red wine had been spilled on one wall and several boxes of paper.”
The report also includes photographs from meetings on June 19 (Boris Johnson’s birthday) and November 13 (a farewell party for one of the employees) – the footage from these events captures the British prime minister.
Initially, the head of government denied attending parties and violating COVID restrictions in general. But later he made a public apology, including to Queen Elizabeth II. By the beginning of April, Scotland Yard issued more than 50 fines to the participants of the events, by mid-May their number reached 126. Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak received them, too. The amount of fines is not specified.
If earlier Laborites, who were in opposition, demanded that Boris Johnson resign, now some of his associates in the Conservative Party are also making public calls. It is the Tories who can initiate a vote of confidence in the leader of the party – for this, 15% of its members in parliament, or 54 people, must send a corresponding demand to the committee of 1922 (a parliamentary group from the Conservative Party in the House of Commons). At the same time, the Conservative Party is confident that it will not come to a forced resignation.
“The report reflects a critical attitude towards the prime minister and the work of his office, but it tells little that is new – many parts of it have been merged over the past few weeks,” Lord Richard Balfe, a member of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords (upper house of parliament), told Izvestia . – In my opinion – and it is shared by many in the House of Lords – he [Boris Johnson] will not retire. He really believes that he has done nothing wrong, so the only way to get him to leave is to initiate a vote of confidence in the ranks of the Tories in the House of Commons. About 50 people may vote for the resignation, but there are still more than 250 deputies who most likely will not vote so, although some of them may abstain.
Boris Johnson is really not going to resign – he made it clear in the same address to the House of Commons, expressing the hope that “having learned the lesson that the Sue Gray report taught him,” the government “will be able to move on, focusing on the priorities of the British people “.
At the same time, as Elena Ananyeva, head of the Center for British Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, reminded Izvestia, after the parties became known, the parliamentary cross-party committee on privileges began its own investigation into whether the prime minister intentionally misled parliament or not. .
– Usually, if he establishes that this or that deputy did it knowingly, it is assumed that the perpetrator should resign; or he can be deprived of his mandate, or require an oral or written apology, depending on the severity of the misconduct, the expert explained.
According to the interlocutor of Izvestia in Westminster, nothing threatens Boris Johnson’s position now: he took responsibility for his employees, apologized, and the majority of conservatives in the House of Commons supported him.
However, another unresolved question remains. It lies in whether Johnson deliberately misled Parliament when it came to parties. If a special parliamentary committee establishes that this was intentional, then his position will be in jeopardy, – said the Izvestia source.
Impact on prestige
The party scandal has taken a toll on the British prime minister’s ratings. In January 2022, when the story began to develop, according to POLITICO, only 29% of citizens perceived his work with approval (by May, this figure had risen to 35%); his rating began to fall back in June 2021. According to YouGov on May 25, after the publication of the Sue Gray report, about 59% of Britons, despite the constant apologies and explanations of Boris Johnson, want him to leave his post.
– In British society, they are very attentive to the behavior and public life of their high-ranking officials. And, of course, the current scandal has excited the public,” Nikolai Topornin, director of the Center for European Information, Associate Professor of the Department of European Law at MGIMO, told Izvestia. – The investigation began within the walls of the parliament – for the opposition it turned out to be a good opportunity to inflict electoral damage on the ruling party. As a result, this whole campaign was decently inflated, although, it would seem, it was possible to limit ourselves to censure and a fine. But press coverage, which is a major force in Britain, took a different path.
One could say that the scandal affected the entire Conservative Party – according to the same POLITICO, 39% of citizens would vote for the Labor Party, and 33% for the Conservatives. But the dynamics of the polls show that the Tory rating began to decline a few months before the scandal was covered: in early December 2021, these two leading parties still enjoyed equal support – 36% each, and then the advantage passed to the opposition.
– If the elections were held now, then the Labor Party, most likely, would have won. Therefore, it is not in the interests of the Tories, replacing Boris Johnson, to inflate this scandal, and even more so to conduct early voting, Nikolai Topornin notes. — They need to maintain the unity of the ranks, protecting the prime minister and strengthening the electoral rating before the next elections (the next parliamentary elections will be held in 2024, Boris Johnson plans to lead the Tories under his leadership. — Izvestia). This can be done at the expense of successes in the economy, which are not yet available. That is why Johnson is accused of being too focused on foreign policy and paying very little attention to the internal situation of the country.
If we are still talking about changing the leader of the ruling party, then, according to Lord Richard Balfe, there are many candidates for this position.
— Foreign Minister Liz Truss is conducting a more or less open campaign. Some Tories, like the head of the International Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, said they would be nominated if there was a competition for leadership in the party, but they did not openly campaign, the parliamentarian said. “Many others, including Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, who ran last time, are maneuvering, as they say. This means that they are campaigning, but they are silent about it.
In general, according to Lord Balfe, the party scandal has outlived its usefulness as history. Boris Johnson figured that if you exaggerate it for too long, people will eventually get bored with it; so it happened, the politician summed up.