The inside story of why the Government U-Turned on partygate vote

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 (PA)
(PA)

Boris Johnson had hoped that while he was away in India Tory MPs would back his bid to kick any vote on a Parliamentary probe into whether he misled the Commons over partygate into the long grass.

But, perhaps emboldened by the Prime Minister’s absence, rebellious Conservative MPs forced Mr Johnson and his whips to perform another screeching U-turn. Minutes before the Commons was set to start debating the matter, they pulled an amendment which sought to delay any vote on his conduct until after the Metropolitan Police finished its inquiries and - crucially - the publication of the full report by civil servant Sue Gray.

At the same time Conservative MPs were given a free vote on a motion tabled by the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer which proposed that MPs vote to refer Mr Johnson to Parliament’s Privileges Committee to consider whether the Prime Minister misled the House, when he said in December that all rules were followed in Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid lockdowns.

No 10 insisted it had reversed course after it was satisfied that under Labour’s proposal no Parliamentary probe exploring whether Mr Johnson had brought Parliament into contempt would start until after the Met wrapped up their investigation and the Gray report was published.

But Labour said no such assurances had been given and suggested the Government was attempting to save face for its sudden switch in tactics. The only plausible conclusion that could be drawn from these latest dramatic events is that Tory whips had significantly underestimated the strength of feeling on its own benches over Mr Johnson being fined for breaking Covid laws.

Faced with the prospect of a sizeable number of Conservative MPs voting against or abstaining on the amendment to delay the probe, ministers had little choice but to ditch the plan. Although Labour’s motion is now expected to be passed, initiating what Labour MP Chris Bryant said was the first Privileges Committee investigation into a Prime Minister in history, it is likely to go through ‘on the nod’ meaning Conservative MPs won’t have to vote for or against it.

That avoids forcing Conservative MPs to make a choice on whether to formally support the bid to delay the probe or to show their hand by opposing their leader.

The Labour amendment lists four examples on December 1 and December 8 in which Mr Johnson said in the House that Covid guidance was followed and rules were broken in response to claims of a series of lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.

That defence was seriously undermined when Mr Johnson was fined £50 last week for attending a party in No 10 to mark his birthday on June 19 2020. With the Prime Minister reported to have attended at least five more gatherings - some of which may be more serious examples of rule breaking - the PM is expected receive more fines in the future.

Mr Johnson maintains he never knowingly misled MPs.

When news of Mr Johnson’s fine broke last week, it looked like any judgment would be deferred until much later in the year. Even outspoken critics of the PM said with war raging in Ukraine now was not the time to try and remove a Prime Minister.

But judging by the mood on the sparsely populated Tory benches as the debate got under way on Thursday afternoon, something has shifted since MPs returned from the Easter recess.

William Wragg, who has previously called on Mr Johnson to quit, launched the first significant blast at his absent leader. "I cannot reconcile myself to the Prime Minister's continued leadership of our country and the Conservative Party,” he said.

More significantly, former minister Steve Baker, an influential organiser on the Tory benches and arch Brexiter, said Mr Johnson "should be long gone".

"Really, the Prime Minister should just know the gig's up," Mr Baker said.

Even Johnson loyalists were spotted scurrying away from Westminster to head back to their constituencies while the debate was going on.

And yet, while this feels like another moment of serious danger for Mr Johnson’s premiership, any investigation into whether he misled the House will not start for weeks, especially after the Met announced on Thursday that no more fines will be issued over parties until after the local elections on May 5.

And it is still the case that Mr Johnson’s future hinges on whether 54 Tory MPs now submit a letter of no confidence in his leadership. With many Tories still keen to wait for the conclusion of the Met inquiry and Gray report and others concerned over how it might look to remove the PM in the middle of a war, it is still unclear how much closer we are to that number.

But it feels like momentum may be building.

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