It is going to be long nights for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his close advisers as he tries to cling on to his job. Allegations of corruption, at worst, and impropriety, at best, in the refurbishment of his official flat have now given way to angry stories based on pictures of parties and get-togethers at Downing Street while the rest of the country laboured under lockdown rules - this has tanked his popularity.
An explanation that it was all work and that he had no personal knowledge of any parties quickly gave way to an apology in Parliament by the PM, and a further unprecedented apology to the Queen for yet more parties which were held on the eve of the funeral of the Queen’s husband Prince Philip in April 2021. That was the period when Britain was in national mourning.
Rarely have seemingly harmless photos of formally dressed and sober looking individuals created such a storm, but such is the Covid-era that these pictures are creating much more splash than a scantily clad model being swooned over by a celebrity would. The Sunday Telegraph has on its cover today a picture of Carrie Johnson sitting pretty close to her friend in a private West End Club in September 2020 effectively throwing, not the virus, but all the rules out of the window.
Also read: 12 times politicians, royals, sportspersons and reality TV stars broke Covid rules
Her spokesperson tells the newspaper that she regrets the momentary lapse in judgement in briefly hugging her friend, but that would be no comfort to people who had to stay away from funerals of friends and family or those whose loved ones took their last breath in hospitals without the assuring presence of known faces around.
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Senior civil servant Sue Gray, who ultimately takes orders from the PM, is investigating the 13 parties that took place in Downing Street and other official sites when lockdown rules were in place. Her report, which is expected to deliver nothing more than a rap on the PM’s knuckles, is expected to come out this week. But so widespread is the anger that whatever be her conclusions, the narrative seems to be shifting away from Johnson’s grasp.
Keenly aware that there is very little appetite among the people to see smaller players being thrown under the bus, so far there have been no resignations or sackings despite the media storm about these lockdown-busting parties. Maybe Johnson has spared the culling so far to use it as a trump as the controversy unfolds further. It may be the calm before a storm, which he hopes will not be strong enough to sweep away his premiership.
One key factor that has put him on a sticky wicket is his next-door neighbour the diminutive chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose popularity has increased among the Tory ranks. Sunak, married to Akshata, daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, only entered the House of Commons in 2015 from the safe Tory seat of Richmond in Yorkshire. He became a junior minister in 2018, and entered the big league in September 2020 when he replaced Sajid Javid as the Chancellor by virtue of being in the good books of Johnson.
While it is Johnson who is regularly pictured on his early morning jogs, it seems that the Oxford and Stanford educated, and far fitter, Sunak might overtake him. Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft who wrote a book on Rishi Sunak notes that his stint in the cut-throat world of investment banking in the US has made him very measured in his approach to people. That Rishi Sunak comes out as a please-all, offend-no-one person is primarily because he is keenly aware of the importance of treating others well.
But can that compensate for the relative inexperience of being in the government? Johnson was the high-profile mayor of London before entering Westminster and has delivered electoral victory for the Conservatives. The vaccine rollout and the booster jabs have been parroted by his lieutenants as proof enough of his administrative skills, but opinion polls have shown Labour gaining lead over the Tories due to the recent party scandals.
It has been a progressive downslide since the controversy over the refurbishment of Johnson’s official residence emerged. It has been lurking over the last few months, refusing to die out, as it showed that the £30,000 annual budget at Johnson’s disposal for refurbishment of his residence was not enough for him to ask for private sponsorship. Just like Sue Gray’s current investigation, this refurbishment of the official residence was the subject of an inquiry in 2021 by Lord Christopher Geidt, an independent adviser on ministerial interests. A wealthy Tory peer David Brownlow had paid for the decorations, bringing allegations of corruption literally at the doorsteps of Number 10. However, Lord Geidt had concluded in May 2021 that the Prime Minister had acted unwisely, but had absolved him of impropriety.
That conclusion was on the surmise that Johnson did not know the source of the funding for the refurbishment. But WhatsApp messages from November 2020 between Johnson and Brownlow, which came out in public on January 6, 2022, reveal that not only had Johnson asked for his help in the flat’s decoration, but also indicated that he was considering Brownlow’s plan for a Great Exhibition 2.0.
The First Great Exhibition was held in 1851 in London’s Hyde Park which showcased the wonders of technology and creativity by countries around the world. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was the moving figure behind the event which was a huge success. One of its aims was to show the progress humankind had made in making lives easier and better. Brownlow wanted a 21st century version of it, and what better way to make it a reality than financing the upgrade of the Prime Minister’s flat to posh wallpaper from Lulu Lytle, among other things, which cost him £52,000.
Just about half of that amount was paid in refund and compensation to the private firm Messrs Munday after Prince Albert and his advisers took the decision that they should cancel the initial contract entered with the firm to finance the Great Exhibition. UK Parliamentary papers note that at the beginning, the organisers to “make arrangements for procuring money on the security of the profits which they anticipated might arise from the undertaking” had entered into a contract with Messrs Munday. However, it was later judged “that the maintenance of any contract, giving to a great national undertaking the appearance of a private speculation, would not be consonant with public feeling…” Thus the money advanced by Messrs Munday was returned along with the compensation decided upon by an arbitrator.
Six weeks after the text exchange, Brownlow secured a meeting with Oliver Dowden, the then culture secretary. Nothing came out of it, but the opposition and media alleged that the meeting happened as Brownlow picked up the tab to decorate the flat to Carrie Johnson’s taste. A far cry to Prince Albert’s cold response to Messrs Munday when they sought to engage him after their contract was cancelled.
Ultimately Johnson, too, has paid back Brownlow the money. One justification given for Johnson’s poor judgement in his flat refurbishment saga was that his job as the prime minister has reduced his income as he cannot take another job! With a handful of children to support, the UK Prime Minister, might be having some sort of difficulty managing his finances. Well, that for one would not be a problem for Sunak who is incredibly rich and his wife, mother to their two daughters, is considered to be richer than the Queen.
There are other contenders as well, apart from Sunak, most notably Liz Truss. But this has also been a cabinet that has important ministers with ancestry in the India sub-continent, thus making the probability of the UK getting its first Asian-origin Prime Minister very high. Priti Patel and Sajid Javid as senior ministers too have a chance, but the focus is much higher on Sunak. An editorial in The Times on Friday noted: “Mr Sunak would not be human if the thought of an early accession to Downing Street had failed to occur to him.” Should that become a reality, Boris Johnson might just become the biggest political casualty of Covid in the developed world.