The drip of party stories seems to be nearing a climax – the Prime Minister’s staff are desperate, writes Katy Balls
First there is the Prime Minister’s decision to attend a drinks party in May 2020, in violation of guidelines. No. 10’s decision to repeatedly deny that any rules were broken when the “Partygate” allegations first came to light last year didn’t exactly help.
The dangerous position Boris Johnson finds himself in following a spate of damaging revelations about Downing Street parties flouting Covid guidelines can be attributed to a number of factors.
But perhaps the most important moment is one that can be traced back to November 2020, when Johnson made the decision to sever ties with Vote Leave.
The team that had worked with Johnson to get the Brexit vote in the EU referendum were the same people who had helped him when he became Tory leader – with Dominic Cummings as his top adviser and his colleague Lee Cain as Director of Communications.
This faction dominated 10 Downing Street when Johnson took the lead and helped guide him to his 2019 election victory. Their direct and controlling approach meant they made many enemies along the way.
But after the pandemic pressured the government, power struggles erupted between the Vote Leave faction and the PM’s wife, Carrie, and her friends over the direction of Johnson’s government. Both Cummings and Cain left.
Despite initial efforts at an amicable farewell – the prime minister posed for farewell photos and wished them well – it was quickly poisoned by briefings from both sides.
Cummings embarks on a revenge mission. The media initially said he would bring Johnson down from the outside. Harmful details came to light during the renovation of the Downing Street flat.
The various leaks were so bad that at one point a No.10 source informed supporting newspapers, pointing the finger at Cummings and saying the PM was “sad” and his former assistant “bitter”.
Even Cummings’ appearance on the select committee, where he suggested Johnson should leave, failed to move the dial. A triumphant mood prevailed on Downing Street following the local elections in which the Tories won the Hartlepool by-election last year.
Despite Cummings’ best efforts, he had failed to weaken Johnson, who was high in the polls. Supporters of the prime minister described him as “world king mode”, a nod to his childhood ambitions to conquer the world. That sense of celebration now seems naïve at best.
Supporters of the former aide have long warned Johnson picked the wrong enemy as he will persist and not stop until he achieves his goal of ousting the Prime Minister from Downing Street.
While the Downing Street team that replaced Vote Leave were welcomed by special advisers, they also appeared to lack grip under pressure.
Cummings allies say he has a grid – which he uses to plan campaign interventions. “He does his best work in the gutter,” says a friend of the Vote Leave director.
The turmoil Johnson is in was sparked by the revelation that he himself had attended a Downing Street party. While ITV was the first to publish a copy of the email sent by private secretary Martin Reynolds inviting staff to the event, it was Cummings who used his Substack blog to bring journalists to the attention of the event before the e- mail leaked.
Now Johnson is struggling for his future, with desperate helpers afraid of new revelations. Senior Tories believe it didn’t have to be this way. “There was an opportunity to keep things in order with Dom, but instead both sides blew it up,” says one veteran. “Getting into an argument with someone who knows so much has always been a crazy idea.”
Now “Dom vs Boris” seems to be reaching its climax. The current series’ subtext has pros and cons for the ailing prime minister.
The result is that Cummings is loathed within the parliamentary group. One of the more compelling arguments Johnson supporters can make to MPs is that ousting him would mean giving Cummings what he wants.
But on the other hand, the dripping nature of the party stories – with new revelations from aid workers celebrating on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, where the Queen sat alone – means many MPs are getting to the point where they will do whatever is fair for it to stop. If Cummings doesn’t quit until Johnson is out, might MPs conclude that it’s best to just give him what he wants?
Cummings isn’t just a problem for Johnson, however. He’s also a subject for Johnson’s favorite, Rishi Sunak. Though the chancellor hasn’t spoken to Cummings since leaving, it’s clear he’d rather have Sunak as prime minister than Johnson. Where Cummings has plenty of criticism of Johnson, he will not say a bad word against the Chancellor.
The saga also hints at upcoming troubles for Johnson if he holds on. It’s not just that Cummings is likely to continue. If the Prime Minister survives – as his own staff expect – Sue Gray’s exposure to Downing Street’s party culture, a major downsizing is likely to follow. “He’s going to need a new team,” says a Johnson ally.
While none of the current No. 10 residents have the same reputation as Cummings for holding grudges or exacting revenge, it would ruffle the feathers to ax dozens of staffers to stay in power. Before Johnson knows it, Cummings won’t be the only former No. 10 staffer willing to make some noise.