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Why ‘partygate’ likely won’t be Boris Johnson’s undoing

A damning report demonstrates the impossibility of shaming someone whose entire career shows him to be utterly shameless.
Image: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives to deliver a speech in London, on May 9, 2022.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives to deliver a speech in London, on May 9, 2022.Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images file

It’s not so much that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has run into trouble recently as that he is trouble, and always has been. Anyone who has followed the ups and downs of his roller coaster career can produce a list as long as their arm of the scrapes he’s gotten himself into and, just as importantly, out of — most often as a result of his willingness to say and do whatever it takes to get him what he wants, regardless of the consequences for others, relying heavily on his charm and his chutzpah to see him through.  

The fact that, so often, his strategy has paid off has helped foster the impression that the prime minister is somehow superhuman, convincing his supporters that he will always be able to recover from reverses from which no mortal politician could possibly hope to bounce back. 

In spite of the findings and a police investigation that saw 126 fines issued to 83 different people — including one which went to the prime minister himself — Johnson, it seems, is going nowhere.

Yet even they could be forgiven for wondering whether “partygate” — the discovery that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, lawbreaking social gatherings had taken place in his home at No. 10 Downing St. — would finally see his preternatural luck run out. 

It had come as a shock to the public when journalists revealed that politicians and officials appeared to have been breaking Covid-19 rules big time by holding boozy parties with Johnson — revelations that proved all the more damaging since adhering to those rules had left many citizens unable to comfort sick and dying relatives, and even attend funerals of their loved ones

Johnson the loveable rogue was one thing. But there being one rule for him and his friends and another for everyone else was too much, even for some who had previously given him the benefit of the doubt. The revelations put him in the gravest political jeopardy of his career.

Yet Wednesday, the day a scathing report by a senior civil servant into the parties was made public, it looks as if that luck still holds. In spite of the findings and a police investigation that saw 126 fines issued to 83 different people — including one which went to the prime minister himself — Johnson, it seems, is going nowhere.   

To understand why and how that might be, we need to take a look back at Johnson’s by no means straightforward climb to the top of what one 19th century prime minister purportedly called “the greasy pole.” Nothing illustrates better than his ascent the combination of guile, recklessness and sheer good fortune that continues to cast a spell on enough of his colleagues and countrymen to allow him to hold on to his job. 

Johnson’s career in Parliament began poorly after he was sacked by one of his predecessors as Conservative Party leader (for lying about an extramarital affair that resulted in an abortion). But Prime Minister David Cameron then reportedly begged Johnson to stand for Mayor of London, apparently believing the celebrity he’d earned as a guest on TV panels meant he had a better shot than any other Tory of wresting control of the city from the Labour Party.  

Despite Cameron’s backing, Johnson then reneged on a solemn promise not to return to parliament until his term in City Hall was over. Once there, he contributed hugely to the pro-Brexit victory in the 2016 E.U. referendum — thereby helping ensure Cameron’s premature departure soon after, as the Conservative leader had staked his position on keeping the U.K. in the E.U.  

Johnson next rewarded Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, for her desperately unwise decision to appoint him U.K. foreign secretary by undermining her attempts to get a deal that would facilitate a Brexit deal at virtually every turn — only to resign that post and fight a successful guerrilla campaign to get rid of her so he could finally fulfill his life’s ambition and move into No. 1o himself.  

In order to ensure that his premiership would last more than just a few months, however, Johnson had to get Brexit done. That involved, among other shenanigans, unlawfully suspending parliament to help him make the case for an early general election in December 2019, victory in which then enabled him to finally extract the U.K. from the E.U. And it saw him negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union that, it turned out, he reportedly had no intention of sticking to, even if that meant the government breaking international law by proposals to unilaterally renege on a treaty.  

And then came Covid. Johnson’s instinctive (and, in normal circumstances, not unreasonable) antipathy toward telling the public what to do meant that early on in the pandemic he delayed taking the kind of firm and timely action that may well have prevented tens of thousands of Brits dying unnecessarily. That he then ended up in the hospital himself with the disease may have garnered him some sympathy, but it had little or no effect on how he dealt with the crisis: Desperate to rid the U.K. of restrictions that were costing the Treasury billions in lost revenue, he opened the country up in 2020 just as a second wave of the coronavirus was starting and then refused to lock down again in time to prevent tens of thousands of additional deaths. 

Johnson himself, however, was saved by the unparalleled early success of the U.K.’s National Health Service’s vaccine program. By summer last year the link between cases, on the one hand, and hospitalizations and death, on the other, had been broken, allowing the prime minister to get back to doing what he does best — setting out an optimistic vision of a post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain that would “build back better” and help those parts of the country that globalization had left behind, at the same time conducting a “war on woke” that would keep on board those culturally conservative working class, non-college-educated voters who had switched to the Conservative Party under Johnson. 

And then, in November last year, came “partygate.” The revelations were bad enough in themselves, but Johnson only compounded the problem by insisting in the House of Commons, to widespread incredulity, that nothing untoward had gone on, even though misleading Parliament is, by convention, a resigning offense. Little wonder, then, that his opponents, buoyed by opinion polls that showed a majority of voters thought Johnson was lying through his teeth, reckoned that, at last, his days really were numbered. 

That they still don’t seem to be is down to the impossibility of shaming someone whose entire career shows him to be utterly shameless, as well as hesitation on the part of the only people who could force him out before his government’s mandate expires in 2024 — his own Conservative colleagues. 

Many of them don’t like him. Even more of them don’t trust him. Yet most of them are still under his spell, believing that he can once again rise from the dead and help them hold together the electoral coalition that saw the Conservatives win big in 2019. And, sadly — at least for anyone who holds that lawmakers shouldn’t be lawbreakers — unless and until he looks certain to cost them rather than win them the next general election, they will remain so.