The Irish Times view on Boris Johnson and Partygate: Britain’s problems go much deeper

The British prime minister is less likely to be brought down by his private behaviour than by his government’s record in office

In the days after Boris Johnson was fined this month for attending a lockdown-breaking gathering in Downing Street two years ago, Partygate no longer appeared to be a threat to his leadership. Conservative MPs who called for his resignation a few months ago now said the prime minister must remain in place on account of the war in Ukraine. Never mind that the Conservatives overthrew Margaret Thatcher in 1990 while Britain was itself at war in Iraq and that the country changed prime ministers during the first and second world wars. Johnson was now indispensable, not least because his most plausible successor, Rishi Sunak, was himself in the thick of controversy over his family's tax affairs.

When Johnson told the House of Commons on Tuesday how sorry he was after being fined, it was not clear what he was apologising for. He said he did not believe he could have been breaking the rules when he attended his own birthday celebration in the Cabinet Room but he accepted that the Metropolitan Police had reached a different conclusion. He tried to move swiftly on to update MPs on Ukraine but Labour leader Keir Starmer stopped the prime minister in his tracks with a powerful speech about Johnson's record of dishonesty. He warned Conservative MPs that the prime minister tended to destroy those who associated too closely with him, urging them to abandon him before he dragged them down with him.

Labour's motion to ask the privileges committee to investigate whether Johnson misled parliament over Partygate is likely to be defeated on Thursday as Conservative MPs troop dutifully into the No lobby. Government whips hope that initiatives like deporting refugees to Rwanda, which are popular with Conservative grassroots, will help to distract MPs if the prime minister faces further Partygate fines in the coming weeks.

Johnson this week accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of voicing more criticism of the Rwandan deportation policy than of Vladimir Putin, a slur he refused to apologise for after it was shown to be baseless. Labour has accused the government of introducing an unworkable refugee policy, knowing it is likely to be blocked by the Lords or the courts, as a distraction from Partygate.

What should worry his MPs is that Johnson's trouble over parties is itself a distraction from deeper, more substantial problems facing Britain and its governing party. The International Monetary Fund forecast this week that Britain would have the lowest growth and the highest inflation of all G7 leading industrialised states. The cost of living crisis is set to worsen over the summer and to become more painful still when energy prices increase again in October. With polls showing Labour ahead on every issue including managing the economy and keeping taxes low, Johnson is less likely to be brought down by his private behaviour than by his government's record in office.

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