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LONDON – Boris Johnson is facing the biggest scandal of his tenure as Prime Minister after admitting he attended a drinks party at No 10 Downing Street in 2020 while the rest of the country was in strict lockdown.
MPs, including some in Johnson’s own party, have publicly called for his resignation – and normally supportive newspapers have turned against him. While Cabinet ministers have tried to defend their boss, some big names have been less than convincing.
So what could happen next? POLITICO guides you through the possible outcomes.
1. Johnson abruptly resigns
This is probably the most unlikely scenario. Johnson has weathered scandal and is, according to an ally The times, “a fighter.”
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, called the embattled prime minister “an imaginative person” who will “try to move the conversation forward”. And Johnson’s loyal ministers have struggled to remind MPs of the 80-strong majority the prime minister delivered for the party in the 2019 general election after Theresa May’s party stared into the electoral abyss.
It would be remarkable if Johnson chose to give the floor with the one under his belt.
However, if Johnson chose to eject, it would not be an immediate exit. He would need to set a timeframe for stepping down, after which a Conservative leadership contest would take place. This can take up to six weeks.
Conservative officials suggested the party would aim to complete this process before the parliamentary summer recess at the end of July so that a successor can be established before it starts again.
2. More harmful revelations force Prime Minister to resign
The next point of extreme danger for Johnson is the completion of an investigation by Sue Gray, a senior official who could report early next week.
Cath Haddon of the Institute for Government think tank said Gray’s report is likely to focus on “getting the facts” rather than assigning blame.
Still, much depends on the details of Gray’s findings and the robustness of her language. Depending on how tough Gray is, the report could see immediate resignations from those involved in the alleged rule-breaking — or it could render Johnson’s own position untenable.
In that scenario, you might expect more MPs to publicly demand Johnson’s head – and potential cabinet resignations.
Conservative MPs could trigger a no-confidence vote in their leader, or Johnson himself could decide he can no longer solicit his party’s support.
It is worth noting that 15 per cent of Conservative MPs must write to the 1922 committee chairman, Graham Brady, to trigger a vote of confidence in Johnson’s leadership. He’s notoriously secretive about the letters he receives, so be careful with assumptions.
3. The police intervene
The Metropolitan Police have not yet launched an official investigation into the many alleged incidents of rule-breaking – despite widespread public anger.
However, the Met confirmed they are in contact with the Cabinet Office after an email invitation to the infamous garden drinks found its way to ITV News. If the Met chose to launch a formal investigation — as activists currently imminent court actions should speak against it – the pressure on Johnson to resign would become acute.
Fun fact: in the UK, a minister or MP does not have to resign if convicted of a crime – unless they are sentenced to more than a year in prison. A shorter sentence would trigger a recall request and give voters a chance to take matters into their own hands, but that’s about it.
4. Johnson is clinging – again
Unless Gray’s report has a direct impact on the Prime Minister, who immediately sends MPs into a letter-writing frenzy, his reckoning will likely be that he can go through it all over again. She might well conclude that a culture of rule-breaking was rife at No. 10 and Whitehall during the pandemic, but without realizing that Johnson was to blame.
Should he survive the immediate aftermath of the investigation, it’s hard to say how long he might ultimately remain in office. If May’s local election goes badly for the Conservatives, it could lead to another outburst of anger and a moment of reckoning ahead of the long summer recess. If not, Johnson will get another pass and can focus on trying to rebuild his standing ahead of the next general election.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will be fine. An adviser to former Prime Minister Theresa May – no stranger to massive Conservative splits – said the party “has now split into two camps” – those for and against Johnson. That means, the ex-adviser warned, that “even if he goes ahead, the rebellion will be sky-high.”
5. Johnson’s Competitors move
Meanwhile, Tory MPs assessing odds as the next prime minister will be making calculations on how best to position themselves.
It did not go unnoticed that two of the ministers hotly voted to succeed Johnson – Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Secretary of State Liz Truss – remained silent for several hours after his apology in Parliament. Although both eventually tweeted their support, it was Sunaks decidedly muted. The chief financial officer, who happened to be 220 miles from Westminster while the prime minister was making a humble apology to the House of Commons, stressed the importance of Gray’s investigation in his statement.
All eyes will be on Sunak when this report lands, and his unwavering support – or otherwise – will tell us the danger Johnson’s leadership is in. His silence throughout the row has not gone unnoticed in Westminster.