Boris Johnson Reportedly Eyeing Early General Election to 'See Off Rivals' Amid Partygate Fallout
05:29 GMT 24.04.2022 (Updated: 08:01 GMT 24.04.2022)
© AP Photo / Alastair GrantBritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons to make a statement about Downing Street parties during the coronavirus lockdowns in London, Tuesday, April 19, 2022
© AP Photo / Alastair Grant
Boris Johnson is under fire, triggering speculation of a leadership challenge, first for his botched handling of an ethics row, and then because he is the first incumbent UK Prime Minister found to have broken the law by breaching his own COVID-19 rules. He was fined by the Metropolitan Police.
Boris Johnson may opt to call a General Election for 2023, a year earlier than he has to, to stave off a potential leadership challenge, according to senior UK government sources cited by the Daily Mail. If the Prime Minister succeeds in surviving further fallout from the so-called “partygate” scandal and Tory poll damage doesn’t ruin the party’s prospects at the local elections on 5 May, sources put the odds of Johnson leading the party into the next election at 50-50.
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak were fined by the Metropolitan Police over a surprise birthday party thrown for the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Room in June 2020 that was ruled to have breached COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. More fines are expected to be issued next month. The Prime Minister is believed to have attended at least two more of the 12 events still being investigated by the Met Police.
Although No 10 had originally planned to “go long” into a 2024 election (the latest it can take place in accordance with the five-year fixed-term law), allowing for a post-pandemic economic recovery buoyed by a fresh tax cut from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Downing Street strategists are now said to be setting these considerations aside as they reportedly focus instead on how to keep Boris Johnson in power. If an election is called early, it is believed that there simply won’t be enough time for a new leader to be ready before polling day.
Election strategist David Canzini, a former Tory party campaign director who was appointed in February as the PM’s new deputy chief of staff, has reportedly been warning government advisers to be prepared “for a General Election at any time”.
Canzini, once dubbed “one of the shrewdest political operators in the UK” by the deputy chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), David Jones, has purportedly been brought in to “change the narrative” of the operation at Downing Street.
Partygate ‘Not Going Away’
All this comes as Conservative party whips think it is inevitable that Johnson will face a vote of no confidence if the Tories’ plummeting poll numbers result in the loss of Wakefield, a marginal “Red Wall” seat, at the by-election in June. The seat is being contested because MP Ahmad Khan had the whip withdrawn in June 2021 and was then expelled from the party after he received a criminal conviction in 2022 for child sexual assault. Furthermore, the “partygate” scandal might pose significant problems for the Conservatives at the May local elections, according to UK political scientist Sir John Curtice.
Ever since the row over illegal coronavirus lockdown gatherings at Downing Street and Whitehall erupted, the Tories have been floundering in the polls.
“The story is not going to go away, the story has now got legs again. The opposition is just going to keep on talking about it. This all plays to [Labour leader] Keir Starmer’s advantage,” Curtice was cited by The Independent as saying.
To date, a total of 46 letters calling for a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson have been sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee, sources are cited as saying. If that figure is correct, only another eight are needed to set a Tory leadership contest in progress.
As the “partygate” row gained fresh traction since Johnson received a Fixed Penalty Notice, MPs backed a Commons inquiry to determine whether the prime minister misled parliament regarding his involvement in lockdown parties held in Downing Street. The push for what is now the third probe into the gatherings was led by the Labour Party, with MPs giving the motion the go-ahead on 21 April.
Although the prime minister apologised in the Commons for the gathering in June 2020, he insisted it had not occurred to him that the event in question was a breach of coronavirus rules. Attempts by No 10 to delay the vote on the inquiry had purportedly been given up after up to 40 government ministers, ministerial aides and senior Tories voiced their readiness to defy Downing Street.
On Saturday there were reports that up to seven Conservative party MPs had approached Labour about defection, with Dehenna Davison, the 28-year-old MP for Bishop Auckland, another Red Wall constituency, singled out specifically.
Johnson’s fate now lies in the hands of the seven-strong Commons Privileges Committee, which will be examining the evidence amassed by the Met probe. The Labour party is said to be searching for a “grandee, an elder statesman” to appoint as its chairman, such as former foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett, after Chris Bryant recused himself, having publicly accused Johnson of being a “proven liar”.
Some MPs have reportedly been suggesting that the whole committee be temporarily replaced by new candidates to ensure a fair process.
As for Johnson, who has returned from a two-day trip to India, he has been adamant that he will still be PM in six months' time. Johnson said he had been working on a post-Brexit trade deal with India, with officials told to "get it done by Diwali in October". When Johnson was asked on Friday at a news conference in New Delhi whether he was "absolutely sure" that he would still be PM by then, he said: "Yes."