Boris Johnson began this week as “crime week”, hoping for positive headlines on tackling drug gangs. He ended it facing multiple investigations that risk leading to criminal sanctions for his closest aides.
The prime minister is under siege on three fronts after a series of events that his allies describe as “the worst period of his time in office, by far”. But Downing Street is braced for another difficult week coming, both in and outside Westminster.
Investigations are under way into whether Covid restrictions were broken in Number 10 last Christmas with a series of parties, and whether Johnson misled his independent ministerial adviser on the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The government is also facing its biggest backbench rebellion yet on more coronavirus restrictions.
Throughout this week, Number 10 has appeared on the back foot and unable to keep up with events. Lord Ken Clarke, the former Conservative chancellor, expressed fears that such a chaotic approach was “very dangerous”.
He told the BBC’s Week in Westminster: “This atmosphere is not producing competent government, which is the first thing you want, nor is it producing a healthy democracy.”
After leaked footage emerged of Johnson’s aides joking about breaking lockdown rules at a festive gathering last year, the cabinet secretary Simon Case was ordered to investigate multiple parties and may refer any criminal behaviour to the police.
One senior civil servant said Case would be “ruthless” in protecting the reputation of the civil service. “There’s a sense the PM wants to throw junior heads under the bus. Simon will therefore have to be fair and thorough into looking into what happened.”
Case has pledged to make public his investigation, which will be concluded by the end of the year, according to those with knowledge of the process.
Senior Tories are also concerned that Johnson may have misled Lord Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, over his knowledge of a loan to pay for the refurbishment of the prime minister’s Downing Street residence. Geidt is said to be “deeply unhappy” at the situation.
One MP said the party was watching both investigations very closely. “If Boris has misled the House [of Commons] on the parties or the flat, things will get much more serious for him.”
Johnson will not have much respite before Christmas. On Tuesday, the latest Covid restrictions for England will go before MPs and Tory whips are braced for the biggest rebellion yet.
One well-placed Tory estimated that as many as 60 MPs could rebel against the restrictions — including guidance to work from home, indoor mask-wearing and the use of vaccine passports. Others believe it could be closer to 40 or 50.
Such a result would still leave Johnson reliant on the opposition Labour party to pass the measures into law. Many backbench MPs remain unconvinced about whether such measures are required and fear that their economic impact outweighs the health benefits.
One Tory backbencher, Anthony Mangnall, said the move was a “massive step back” and that he would vote against his own leadership. “If you can get Covid having been vaccinated, there’s absolutely no point in having a vaccine passport,” he said.
The prime minister’s other threat next week comes from the North Shropshire by-election on Thursday, where the Tories are fending off a challenge from the Liberal Democrats after the resignation of disgraced former minister Owen Paterson.
Despite the party’s 22,949 majority, bookmakers have the Liberal Democrats as favourites to win. One senior Lib Dem official admitted, “it’s a mountain to climb” but added there was a positive mood for the party on the ground. “We’re climbing it, so there’s a chance.”
If the Tories lose or only squeak home, confidence in Johnson is likely to sink further. A party official cautioned. “Proof of the fears that Boris has lost his winning appeal is dangerous territory.”
The latest opinion polls show that the government’s troubles have cut through to voters. YouGov puts Labour four points ahead of the Tories, while another survey from Focaldata puts the Conservatives eight points behind.
Johnson’s allies and MPs have urged him to get a grip of the situation and demonstrate he has a plan for dealing with this triptych of crises. As one seasoned MP warned: “He’s on the way to the fires of Mount Doom unless things seriously improve.”