MPs left Westminster for a week-long recess yesterday with Boris Johnson still in place as prime minister despite the latest revelations about parties in Downing Street during lockdown. Senior civil servant Sue Gray described multiple gatherings that were in breach of the rules, including some that saw staff become so drunk that they vomited and got into fights.
The prime minister said he was humbled by the report and that he had learned a lesson, telling MPs that he accepted full responsibility for what went on. But he suggested that, apart from a single breach for which he has been fined, he did no wrong and that his presence at staff leaving parties while the country was locked down was evidence that he was showing leadership.
His backbenchers are the masters of the prime minister’s fate and their silence in parliament signals that although they are not inclined to move against him now, they could do so at any moment.
All of Johnson’s actions in recent months can be viewed in the light of this political reality, notably his provocative moves on the Northern Ireland protocol and the legacy of the Troubles. These make little sense in terms of Britain’s national interest or even of the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes but they appeal to a group of MPs on the right of the party.
The legacy proposals introduced this week would offer immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related crimes in return for cooperation with an information retrieval process and ends all legal investigations into such crimes including inquests. They are opposed by every party in Northern Ireland, by victims’ groups and by the Irish Government but they appeal to Conservative MPs who want to spare former British soldiers from prosecution for their alleged crimes.
Johnson’s high-risk strategy on the protocol has committed his government to introducing legislation within weeks to unilaterally override its terms. It has drawn criticism from Dublin and Washington and a warning of retaliation from Brussels that could include the termination of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Again, there is no evidence of an electoral advantage for the Conservatives in reneging on the agreement but the issue matters to eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, who have been calling for unilateral action. The prime minister has manoeuvred himself into a position where he cannot retreat from his risky endeavour on the protocol without risking a move against him from the right-wing MPs who put him in Downing Street three years ago.
All of Johnson’s energies and his government’s policies are bent to the imperative of remaining in power at any cost, even if that cost is borne by Troubles victims and the peace process in Northern Ireland.