Aides have had to scramble to save the prime minister this week after his strategy for dealing with the party scandal suddenly fell apart
That imploded in the 36 hours after ITV News published a screenshot of an email invitation that appeared to prove Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s private secretary, now nicknamed ‘Party Marty’, during the first in the garden No 10 had organized a get-together national lockdown when all social gatherings were illegal.
Ever since Boris Johnson announced an investigation into “Partygate”, 10 Downing Street has been pursuing a consistent strategy: build up walls and kick the can onto the street.
Downing Street went down immediately. After the junior ministers deployed to defend the government were smitten by the media and backbenchers on Tuesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps reportedly refused to do a broadcast on Wednesday because he did not have all the information he needed to give for a full account of events .
At the time, No 10 had yet to finalize its strategy and fears grew that Mr Johnson’s career was in mortal danger. But on Wednesday morning the tactic crystallized: the prime minister would apologize but play for time.
However, just a day later, Downing Street was rocked again by the revelation of two parties taking place the night before the Queen sat alone at Prince Philip’s socially distanced funeral.
Staff reportedly danced and drank into the wee hours at two farewell events in April 2021 held for James Slack, Mr Johnson’s communications director and one of the Prime Minister’s personal photographers.
Details of the parties revealed by The Telegraph, involve an employee allegedly being sent off with a suitcase to buy wine at a beachside supermarket. Then, after the two parties merged, an employee was playing on a swing belonging to the Prime Minister’s young son, Wilfred, and broke it, according to the report.
But while Mr Slack has apologized “unreservedly” for the “anger and hurt” caused, the Prime Minister was not at Downing Street at the time of the event – with Tory MPs dispatched to early media rounds to make the point clear .
Opposition MPs and social media were unfazed by claims that Mr Johnson thought the BYOB garden party drinks were part of a “work event” and is likely to call for his resignation, regardless of whether he attended the parties held in April participated or not.
But at Downing Street, the team breathed a sigh of relief. Four conservative backbenchers broke cover and called for their leader to resign, but aides dismissed them as the “usual suspects”. When asked if Scottish Tories leader Douglas Ross’ defiance was a hit, one shrugged: “Douglas is Douglas.”
Even when the threat of an immediate challenge has passed, almost everyone in No. 10 remains deeply concerned about the possible consequences.
It’s not just Mr Johnson’s career that is at stake: Mr Reynolds and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case have both been personally accused of breaking the rules and there could be consequences for any of the dozens of staff who either went to the lockdown drinks or simply were invited and decided to turn a blind eye.
An eyewitness told an MP the prime minister was “like a broken old man, shuffling around the number 10 mumbling, ‘Why did they do this to me?'”
Advisors are frustrated that the scandals have delayed policy announcements. One said: “We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming our way – after this all dies down.”
Allies of Mr Johnson believe his best hope is to assert himself with his signature blend of romp and charm.
Asked if the prime minister’s encounter with political death prompted him to review his legacy this week, his official spokesman replied: “I don’t think self-reflection is his priority.”