OPINION - Tom Newton Dunn: Can the Tory party’s love affair with Boris Johnson survive cake-gate?

·5-min read
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Partygate triggers us all in different ways. It wasn’t the No10 press office’s Christmas booze-up that did it for me personally. Nor the spring evening drinks party in the Downing Street back garden, as asinine as they both were. It was Boris’s birthday party, revealed on Monday.

If you have children born between March and July, and you obeyed the rules, they haven’t had a birthday party for almost three years now. My two sons haven’t. So many have suffered so much worse than us in this gruelling pandemic. We’ve got off lightly. But it’s the emotional connection that cuts through with any news story. The spark that unlocks the individual frustration, the personal loss, however big or small.

Tory MPs are no different. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, was unable to say goodbye to his father, who he was convinced was going to die during the third lockdown. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, did actually lose his uncle. He died alone in hospital with no family by his bedside.

This story isn’t really about us the voters. It’s about them. Shapps, Zahawi and the 356 other Tory MPs, and their love affair with their leader, Boris Johnson. They control Boris Johnson’s future as Prime Minister now, not us. Each will have to decide whether to keep or ditch him, once the now inevitable vote of no confidence is tabled.

Not even Johnson’s closest allies doubt that the threshold of 54 letters calling for one will be passed after Sue Gray’s report is published, probably within hours of it.

Which brings us to the Metropolitan Police’s investigation, announced yesterday, into multiple “serious and flagrant” breaches of Covid regulations inside Downing Street itself, and Gray’s findings themselves.

That the Met is now investigating is clearly bad news for Johnson, as it means he might be found to have committed a criminal offence himself by knowingly going to one of the illicit parties. That would be an open and closed resigning offence, and end the nightmare quickly. But if he hasn’t, what then? What if it isn’t that definitive for Tory MPs, and they’re left with 50 shades of Gray to choose from?

What if, as is more likely, their leader is just found to have presided over an anarchic shambles, where highly stressed and exhausted people lost sight of right and wrong? Where, having almost died from Covid himself, he personally should have known his own rules much better, and not have allowed amoral chaos. Then what? Is that a sackable offence? Is that worth ousting a Prime Minister and changing the course of history for?

I’ve talked to dozens of Tory MPs over the last few weeks (on air but mostly off), ministers and backbenchers, senior and newly elected. Some hate Johnson with a special passion and want him gone. Others are equally desperate he stays. But the main ballast are deeply conflicted. They know their golden boy is turning toxic. They hear it on the doorsteps. Yet they still hope they’ll get back the shiny, fun-loving vote winner they originally fell in love with, no matter how forlorn that hope might seem.

From their perspective, Johnson’s political future may then depend more on how he handles the aftermath of Gray than what’s in Gray itself, much of which they already think they know. Johnson will plead for forgiveness. How successful he is at doing that will be the key to winning the no confidence vote.

Tory MPs largely say they want two things from the PM. The first is to tell them he is truly sorry personally for the mistakes he has made. Not to stick the blame on someone else, but to take it on the chin and admit he has failed them.

The second is he must promise he will change, and to convince them that he actually will. Not just to change some of the ineffectual people around him, but how the whole Government is run. How he runs it, how he makes decisions. And so we’re back to the love story. “I can change,” is the philanderer’s perennial plea. And again, the betrayed partner takes them back.

The philanderer’s risk is, eventually, the partner’s love for them dies. The relationship lingers on, but without feeling. Just disappointment. Sooner rather than later, the bruised partner, betrayed one too many times, meets someone else who is shiny and new. “Actually, life doesn’t need to be this way after all,” she thinks. And she leaves him.

In other news...

The truth is, Putin has already won

Tragically, the West has learned nothing from the past 10 years of Russian aggression.

Vladimir Putin plays by the rules of hardball Realpolitik, as Bismarck called it. He junked the cosy consensus of the post-Second World War liberal settlement yonks ago. Syria proved that, as did Salisbury.

But many European leaders are still in denial about it, and think a gangster can be reasoned with.

It’s that denial that has precipitated the disastrous split in Nato over the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is still no agreement on whether to arm Kiev, or deploy troops to border countries. Or shut down the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and cut off Russia from the Swift financial payments system if Putin invades.

Because of that, Nato has failed to threaten any serious deterrent. What has happened instead? Putin is getting the attention he craves for Russia, that of a potent world power. He is enjoying summits with President Biden as an equal, and has revealed the West is split, and weak. In lots of ways, Putin has already won.

Trump may be challenged by shrinking Mike

Keep an eye on Mike Pompeo as the dark horse for the White House in 2024, if you can still recognise him.

Donald Trump’s former Secretary of State, inset, has lost a staggering six stone in as many months — a third of his bodyweight. That’s will power. It’s also emerged he has spent $30,000 on his own media training.

Pompeo is considered the only Republican with the strength of personality to give his old boss a run for his money for the nomination. Does he dare? He’s not telling.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter on Times Radio

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