Boris Johnson is having a terrible time. Weathering allegations of breaking public health rules and struggling to keep hold of support from his backbenchers, he is truly in a mess. That mess, however, is almost entirely of his own making. Let’s take a look at some of the stories set to ruin the Prime Minister’s Christmas…
Christmas frolicking… while banning frolicking
The Mirror broke the story on December 1st that more than one party, including one on December 18th last year, took place in Downing Street in breach of the public health rules in place at the time and very much going against the grain of the strong warnings coming out of No 10. If you remember, the government placed the capital into ‘tier three’ on December 16th, which banned all indoor mixing except within household bubbles, before issuing a further stay-at-home instruction to Londoners just days before Christmas.
Johnson claimed during PMQs, after the story first emerged, that Covid rules were not broken – but also did not deny a party took place. “Both of those things can’t be true,” Keir Starmer pointed out. Johnson’s explanation was further undermined as footage was leaked one week later showing his then spokesperson Allegra Stratton laughing about the alleged party. It was shortly followed by a video of a tearful Stratton resigning. The waterworks didn’t get much sympathy from me: as a Newsnight journalist, Stratton once sought to humiliate a young single mother, which ended in the BBC programme having to issue a public apology.
Wallpaper-gate gets another look-in
Cast your mind back to April, when Johnson was accused of having a Tory donor pay for the refurbishment of his Downing Street residence. (Prompting some John Lewis-based humour from Starmer.) The news sparked concerns around what exactly the party backer, Lord Brownlow, was getting in return. Fast-forward to December 9th, an Electoral Commission investigation came back to bite Johnson as it suggested his version of events was not quite accurate.
Johnson told his adviser Lord Geidt, as reported in May, that he did not know who was behind the payments until February 2021. But the commission found that the Prime Minister WhatsApped Lord Brownlow on November 29th 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works”. The peer agreed to do so and confirmed he had on December 6th. The Conservative Party has been fined £17,800 for not recording the donation correctly and failing to keep proper accounting records. (Not a huge sum given the report found that £52,801.72 of £67,801.72 had not been declared.)
Let’s get Christmas quizzical
Johnson was rocked by a more personal accusation of rule-breaking on December 11th. The Mirror struck again, releasing a photo that appears to show the Prime Minister leading a Christmas quiz last year. He can be seen in the picture sitting beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher as he read out questions between two members of his team, one wearing a Christmas hat and the other draped in tinsel. On the decision to hold the quiz, a source told the paper: “Everybody decided it would be more fun. It would be difficult to take part in such a large virtual quiz from home. No work was discussed, it wasn’t a business event. Nobody was working that evening, it was purely a social event.”
Follow the yellow brick road
Lib Dem Helen Morgan stormed to a convincing victory in the North Shropshire by-election on December 17th. It was a seat that had returned a Conservative MP since 1830, but the Lib Dems came from a third-place position, and a 10% vote share, in the 2019 general election to beat Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst last week. The shock result was not even close, with Morgan securing a 5,925-vote majority over her Conservative rival.
The by-election was triggered by disgraced Tory Owen Paterson stepping down. Johnson sparked outrage in November when he whipped Conservative MPs to reject a 30-day sanction of their colleague for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules. This was followed by a humiliating climb down from the government, with ministers describing the move to protect their friend as a “mistake”. The by-election result has also been seen as a comment on the many allegations of Covid rule-breaking, and the Prime Minister probably didn’t help matters when he travelled to the constituency only to forget his candidate’s name.
A touch of Frost
Lord Frost, the man overseeing Brexit, resigned on December 18th in another blow to Johnson. After weeks of Frost being vocal with concerns over tax increases and the reimposition of Covid restrictions, his leaving the government is another sign of divisions opening within the his party – both over what Tory backbenchers see as a too interventionist Conservative government and over public health measures to combat Covid. Johnson cannot even turn to his ‘oven-ready’, general-election-winning Brexit for positive press amid a Covid and sleaze-ridden month.
Garden party Insta moment
Last but by no means least, the Prime Minister’s face was again splashed across frontpages today for alleged Covid rule-breaking. The Guardian had the scoop this time, publishing a photo showing Boris and Carrie Johnson in the garden with a number of Downing Street staff enjoying wine and cheese in May 2020. The photo was shared with the paper after No 10 denied that a social gathering with wine, spirits and pizza took place inside and outside the Downing Street building that day.
Johnson’s spokesperson claimed staff were working. “I don’t know what you do at work, but I don’t spend my time drinking glasses of wine and eating cheese,” Rachel Reeves said. “That wasn’t a picture of people at work. That was a picture of people enjoying themselves, and not just with colleagues, but also with family as well.”
Whether we are looking at headlines fuelled by his shady dealings with a Tory donor, Covid rule breaking shenanigans or Brexit, the Prime Minister could have avoided each of the problems that have plagued his administration in the last month. Or, put more accurately, Johnson could have simply not caused the problems himself.