Boris Johnson seeks reset over ‘partygate’ with time running out

Prime minister is clinging to power.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister. Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson promised his Conservative Party an overhaul of his top team as he strives to keep his job after a series of gaffes and scandals. Two rapid appointments over the weekend may already be too late.

Reeling from the resignation of five aides in 24 hours last week, the UK prime minister moved quickly to fill key posts, inserting Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay as his chief of staff, and Guto Harri, a former aide from when Johnson was Mayor of London, as his director of communications.

The moves are central to Johnson’s attempt to cling to power in the face of a growing Tory rebellion. In addition to reset of his Downing Street staff, he promised rank-and-file lawmakers more influence over government decisions and indicated even flagship policies are now up for discussion.

But he faces a race against time. Tory anger over the parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic, which are subject to a police inquiry over allegations they broke Covid-19 rules, shows no sign of abating.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, former schools minister Nick Gibb called for Johnson to resign over his “double standards” and “inaccurate” statements to Parliament about the lockdown gatherings.

Under party rules, a vote on Johnson’s leadership is triggered if 54 Tory MPs — or 15% of the total — submit confidential letters calling for his removal.

Tory rebellion

The Sunday Times said Johnson is preparing for a vote as soon as this week, with his advisers estimating the current total stands between 35 and 45, and others predicting the total is already over 50.

“It is going to end in him going, so I just want him to have some agency in that,” Charles Walker, a Tory MP and former vice-chairman of the 1922 committee which oversees a leadership vote, told the Observer newspaper.

Still, Johnson is unlikely to make it easy for his Tory opponents and the appointments to his senior staff reflect his intention to battle on.

As a former Brexit minister who was prominent in the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, Barclay will be tasked with improving relations with MPs. The prime minister has been particularly undermined by dissatisfaction among rookie MPs elected in 2019 in traditional Labour seats, where voters were attracted to Johnson and the Tories’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan.

Steve Barclay MP as Chief of Staff? Does he resign as an MP? Or is he answerable to Parliament? I can think of no democracy where the chief of staff can also be in the legislature. Thread

— Jonathan Powell (@jnpowell1) February 5, 2022

Yet Barclay’s appointment was widely criticised, given he will still be an MP. “I found being No. 10 chief of staff a full time job,” Jonathan Powell, who served under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, said on Twitter. “Not sure how it could be combined with representing a constituency.”

‘Groveling apology’

The strategy for choosing Harri, who has called Brexit a “a catastrophic act of self-harm,” is less clear. In BBC interviews last month, he said Johnson should issue a “groveling apology” for the lockdown parties, and that “maybe the moment has passed” when Johnson could persuade a new team to join.

“You can address the issue of competence if you change the team convincingly and comprehensively,” he told the BBC’s Newscast podcast on Jan. 26. “So you’re left with the issue of integrity and that’s the one that’s hard to judge, and different people will come to different conclusions.”

Johnson has begun that process of overhauling his team — several newspapers reported Sunday he is also preparing to change his whips or parliamentary enforcers — but the question is whether they can still help.

The prime minister lost his most long-standing aide over his decision to falsely accuse Labour Party leader Keir Starmer — a former director of public prosecutions — of allowing an infamous child-sex abuser to evade justice.

Cabinet Division
The remark, made during a heated exchange in the House of Commons as Johnson tried to rally Tory support over the parties, backfired spectacularly and even led key Cabinet ministers, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, to distance themselves from the fallout.

Again and again – smart people – Dan Rosenfield, Allegra Stratton, Simon Case and, yes, even Dominic Cummings, and Steve Barclay, have been tempted to work for Boris Johnson – believing they can change a 57 year old man – who never changes. Why? https://t.co/MYtX0mgp8a

— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) February 6, 2022
In a potential sign of the tensions, the Telegraph newspaper reported late Sunday that the Treasury had refused to sign off on Johnson’s plan to address the backlog in the National Health Service caused by the pandemic. Health officials had expected Javid to announce the so-called The National Recovery Plan on Monday, according to the report.

During the government’s media round on Sunday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng appeared to issue a rebuke to his colleagues, telling Times Radio: “It’s the job of cabinet ministers, and the parliamentary party, to give him time and space to lead.”

Yet other questions directed at Kwarteng on Britain’s cost-of-living crisis illustrated why many Tory MPs are so worried about giving Johnson more time to deal with what the media has dubbed “partygate.”

The Conservatives are already trailing Labour in the polls, with Britons facing a squeeze on living standards that is expected to accelerate in the coming months. Tesco Plc non-executive chairman John Allan told the BBC the “worst is still to come” with food prices potentially soaring 5% by the spring.

That makes “partygate” a distraction at the worst possible time.

“To restore trust, we need to change the prime minister,” Gibb, who was also a minister under Johnson’s predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron, wrote in the Telegraph.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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