Good morning. PMQs can sometimes come across as a tedious and pointless hoopla, but it is the hardest diary engagement for a PM to avoid, and so it can be a catalyst for decision. With a big question looming, the PM has to have an answer. And by 12pm today Boris Johnson will have to have decided what to say about the partygate crisis.
The story has been running now for a week, but last night’s revelation that Downing Street aides were privately laughing about a lockdown-busting party at rehearsal for a televised press briefing has elevated this from a moderately-damaging irritation to a full-on disaster, with the potential to deliver a big hit to the government’s ratings. Here is our overnight story.
Broadly, Johnson has three options.
- Stick with the denials? No 10 has said that no party took place (although Johnson personally has not said that) and that all the rules were followed. This seems unlikely, because this line has never been plausible, and now it is more threadbare than ever.
- Own up and apologise? This would be out of character, but it is what many reputation management experts would advise.
- Explain, and blame? Johnson could argue that, until very recently, he was misled about what happened, and he could identify a culprit and perhaps insist on a resignation. This might not be entirely honest, but given that this is how often how political organisations respond to a crisis like this, it does not seem improbable.
For Labour, Christmas has come early, and the party probably delivered its best attack line on Twitter last night. People seem strangely tolerant of politicians lying to them (they have had a lot of practice in recent years), but no one likes being laughed at.
The party has resurrected the line again this morning.
Here are some of the overnight developments on this story.
- The Department for Education has admitted that it was a mistake to hold an office party in December last year. It was responding to an inquiry from the Daily Mirror, which revealed that Gavin Williamson, the then education secretary, held a thank you reception for around two dozen staff. Williamson has gone, and so the DfE can admit the party should not have happened without the secretary of state coming under pressure to quit. But the DfE’s response is very different to No 10’s, and it makes Downing Street’s decision to continue to deny it held a party last December look every more futile.
- Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has pulled out of a morning interview round. It is not clear yet whether he was told not to appear by No 10, or whether he refused, on the grounds that he did not feel able to defend the government over the Downing Street party.
- Tory MPs and peers are getting increasingly angry about the party. The most outspoken of them so far is probably Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, who posted this on Twitter this morning.
- The row has emboldened Conservative lockdown sceptics – just at the moment when it seems increasingly like that Johnson may have to implement his plan B because of the threat posed by Omicron. One of the backbenchers most critical of the lockdown, Sir Charles Walker, told Times Radio this morning that it would be “very difficult” for the government to introduce new mandatory measures. He explained:
To be very proscriptive about this now, particularly as we’ve had such a successful vaccine rollout… is much more difficult, and was always going to be much more difficult. And the events of the last 24 hours make it probably almost impossible now.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.15am: Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, gives evidence to the Commons work and pensions committee.
9.30am: The ONS publishes new data on Covid antibody levels, on the impact of Covid on students, and on personal wellbeing.
10am: Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, gives at speech at Chatham House.
12pm: Boris Johnson faces Keir Starmer at PMQs.
3pm: Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister and justice secretary, gives evidence to the joint committee on human rights.
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