The Metropolitan Police’s dramatic statement on Friday morning was the first piece of genuinely good news Boris Johnson has received in a long time.
The force’s decision to go public with its desire for Sue Gray’s report into partygate to be watered down, at least for now, allows the prime minister some precious breathing space.
It means the full report into whether lockdown rules were broken by Number 10 officials – including Johnson himself – is likely to be delayed for weeks, if not months. A redacted report – thought to be published next week – could be timid enough to buy the PM time.
That should take the heat off the PM, allowing him more time to persuade wavering Tory MPs while allowing Operation Red Meat – populist policies designed to turn around his party’s dismal poll numbers – to be rolled out in full.
But while the prime minister may just about be able to enjoy his weekend for the first time in a while, there are still a number of problems he needs to solve if the question marks over his long-term future are to be dispersed.
1. The police investigation into partygate
Sue Gray’s inquiry may have run into trouble, but it’s never a good look for a sitting prime minister to be under investigation by the police. Just ask Tony Blair, whose latter months in Number 10 were dogged by the cash for honours scandal. We are told that the PM is yet to be spoken to by the Met, who are carrying out their own probe into several Downing Street gatherings alleged to have broken lockdown rules. If, like Blair, Johnson is merely interviewed as a witness, he should be safe. But were he to be questioned under caution, expect calls for his resignation to intensify.
At any other time, impending war would be the biggest story at Westminster. It says much about the mess the PM has got into over partygate that it is not. Downing Street insist the UK is leading the west’s response to the crisis brought about by Vladimir Putin’s decision to put 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, in preparation for invasion. Johnson’s response to such a move will do much to define his premiership, and could allow him the reset he desperately wants.
3. National insurance rise
Despite reports that Johnson was preparing to ditch the planned rise in national insurance coming in April to try to placate his unhappy backbenchers, Downing Street on Friday insisted that the hike is happening “no ifs, no buts”. This is unlikely to please Tory MPs, who believe that hitting voters with a tax rise when they’re already enduring soaring food and energy prices will not end well for their party. One, Rob Halfon, told HuffPost UK: “The government should definitely raise the money, not through taxes on workers but on millionaires instead, such as a windfall tax on major industries like oil, which is raking in profits at the moment.” This problem is not going away any time soon.
4. No confidence letters
Like the Sword of Damocles, the prospect of his MPs submitting enough letters to 1922 chairman Sir Graham Brady to trigger a vote of no confidence remains a live one for the PM. No one but Sir Graham knows how close we are to hitting the magic total of 54, but so fraught are relations between Johnson and his parliamentary party that any more partygate revelations may well be enough to tip the balance even before Sue Gray or the Met tell us the results of their deliberations. The PM and his allies are trying to scare the malcontents with the prospect of a general election should Johnson go. With Labour well ahead in the polls, this is something they would be well advised to avoid. Which brings us to his fifth problem ...
5. Dire opinion polls
Barely two months ago, all the talk was about Johnson emulating Margaret Thatcher by going on and on, and him squatting like a giant toad over the centre ground of British politics, leaving Labour with nowhere to go. How times change. Keir Starmer’s party have now established a decent lead over the Conservatives, and there is little sign of the public mood shifting while the PM is dogged by all his other troubles. As we’ve seen, opinions can shift very quickly, but until Johnson can find a solution to the rest of his problems, he’s likely to remain in the doldrums for some time to come.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.