LONDON — Boris Johnson is facing the biggest scandal of his premiership after admitting he attended a 2020 drinks party in No.10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was under a 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, a few big names have been less-than-convincing.
So what could happen next? POLITICO runs you through the possible outcomes.
1. Johnson resigns abruptly
This is probably the least likely scenario. Johnson has weathered many a scandal and is, as one ally told The Times, “a fighter.”
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, called the embattled prime minister “a resourceful person” who “will be trying to move the conversation on.” And Johnson’s loyal ministers have been at pains to remind MPs of the 80-strong majority the PM delivered for the party at the 2019 general election after the party had stared into the electoral abyss under Theresa May.
It would be remarkable if Johnson chose to cede the floor with that under his belt.
If Johnson did, however, choose to fire up the ejector seat, it would not be an instant exit. He would need to set a timeframe for stepping down, after which a Conservative leadership contest would take place. That could run for up to six weeks.
Conservative officials suggested the party would aim to complete this process before the summer parliamentary recess at the end of July to allow a successor to establish themselves before things kick off again.
2. Further damaging revelations force the PM out
The next point of extreme jeopardy for Johnson is the conclusion of an inquiry into allegations of lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street and across Whitehall by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, who could report early next week.
Cath Haddon of the Institute for Government think tank said Gray’s report is expected to focus on “establishing the facts” rather than apportioning blame.
Yet a lot rests on the detail of Gray’s findings and the robustness of her language. Depending on how hard Gray goes, the report could be accompanied by immediate resignations from people involved in the alleged rule-breaking — or it could make Johnson’s own position untenable.
In this scenario, you could expect to see more MPs calling publicly for Johnson’s head — and potential Cabinet resignations.
Conservative MPs could trigger a no-confidence vote in their leader, or Johnson himself may conclude he can no longer command his party’s support.
It’s worth noting that triggering a confidence vote in Johnson’s leadership will need 15 percent of Conservative MPs to write to the chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady. He’s famously tight-lipped about the letters he’s received, so take any guesses with a pinch of salt.
3. The police get involved
The Metropolitan Police have so far not opened any official investigation into the many alleged incidents of rule-breaking — despite widespread public anger.
The Met did confirm, however, that they’re in contact with the Cabinet Office after an email invite to the notorious garden drinks found its way to ITV News. If the Met opted to launch a formal investigation — as campaigners currently threatening court action argue it should — the pressure on Johnson to resign would become acute.
Fun fact: there’s no requirement in the U.K. for a minister or MP to stand down if they’re convicted of a crime — unless they are sentenced to more than a year in prison. A shorter sentence would trigger a recall petition, giving voters the chance to take matters into their own hands, but that’s it.
4. Johnson clings on — again
If Gray’s report does not have direct implications for the prime minister that send MPs into instant letter-writing fury, his calculation will probably be that he can tough it out again. She may well conclude that a culture of rule-breaking was rife in No. 10 and Whitehall during the pandemic, but without finding that Johnson was responsible.
Should he survive the immediate aftermath of the inquiry, it’s difficult to say how much longer he could ultimately spend in office. If local elections in May go badly for the Conservatives, it could prompt another flash of anger and a moment of reckoning before the long summer break. If not, Johnson gets another pass and can focus on an attempt to rebuild his standing before the next general election.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all will be hunky-dory, however. An adviser to former PM Theresa May — no stranger to massive Conservative splits — said the party “has now broken into two camps” — those for and against Johnson. That, the ex-adviser warned, means that “even if he stays on, the rebellion levels are going to be sky-high.”
5. Johnson’s rivals make a move
Through all of this, Tory MPs who fancy their chances as the next prime minister will be making calculations about how best to position themselves.
It did not go unnoticed that two of the ministers hotly tipped to succeed Johnson — Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — were silent for several hours after his apology in parliament. Although both eventually tweeted their support, Sunak’s was decidedly muted. The finance chief, who happened to find himself 364 kilometers away from Westminster while the PM made a groveling apology to the House of Commons, highlighted the importance of Gray’s inquiry in his statement.
All eyes will firmly be fixed on Sunak when that report lands and his full-throated support — or otherwise — will tell us how much danger Johnson is in. Another contender to watch is Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the health committee and Johnson’s former challenger for the leadership. His silence on the whole row has not gone unnoticed in Westminster.