Is this a crisis too far for beleaguered PM?

As the year turned there was hope in Tory circles that Boris Johnson had succeeded in drawing a line under the series of scandals that dogged his administration at the end of 2021.

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street

Backbench fury at the chaos surrounding Number 10 appeared to have subsided, leaving a relieved PM all set to push his stalling ‘levelling up’ agenda with renewed vigour.

Mr Johnson’s first few public appearances saw him sporting a sharp new barnet and looking – and sounding – more focused than he had done in months.

But the revival was to last all of a week. It seems that as far as this PM is concerned, scandal is never too far away.

Just as the furore over allegations of Downing Street staff breaking lockdown rules appeared to have died down, reports emerged of the breach to end all breaches.

Boris Johnson

A leaked email shows that in May 2020 one of Mr Johnson’s most senior civil servants invited around 100 staff to a ‘bring your own booze’ garden party at Number 10.

This was at the height of the first lockdown, when the country was operating under strict restrictions banning people from meeting any more than one person they didn’t live with outside. Moreover, eyewitnesses have claimed that Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie were among the attendees, which reportedly numbered more than 30.

It comes against a backdrop of an ongoing inquiry into allegations of a number of other Downing Street lockdown breaches.

Undoubtedly, this fresh revelation is the latest part of an orchestrated attempt to oust Mr Johnson, which may or may not involve a guy accused of breaching lockdown rules himself during an ill-advised trip to Barnard Castle. It has been followed by the expected pile-on from his political enemies, with Labour once again sensing blood and the likes of former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve coming out of the woodwork to put the boot in.

The entire episode raises a number of questions.

It seems utterly bizarre that a top civil servant would plan and hold a social event at a time when so many people were enduring untold hardship.

If the PM did indeed attend it himself, then we are entering the realms of the surreal.

And then you have to ask, as a seemingly baffled Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope did in the Commons yesterday, why on earth the party was not referred earlier to the existing inquiry.

It’s possible they simply didn’t think they would get caught, although it makes you wonder what else is left to come out in the weeks and months ahead.

Let’s not forget that Mr Johnson has previously insisted that no parties were held at Downing Street and that no rules were broken.

If he is found to have broken the rules in this instance, then his position – already weakened drastically last year in the eyes of some of his Tory colleagues – may well become untenable.

As well as the allegations over lockdown breaches, Mr Johnson’s atrocious handling of the Owen Paterson scandal left backbenchers facing public fury while he was out of town preoccupied with COP26.

Many were ready to move on, but this latest debacle risks damaging any hopes of a ‘new year, new start’.

His MPs dearly want to be able to focus on ‘building back better’, particularly at a time when Mr Johnson’s gamble not to impose stricter restrictions to counter the Omicron wave over new year appears to have paid off.

A big year lies ahead, with local elections set to take place in May and planning set to start in earnest for the next general election.

It now looks like the Government has taken one step forward and two steps back.

Ministers insist the PM retains the confidence of the British people, but privately they will be concerned that trust is ebbing away fast.

Since Mr Johnson became PM, there has been a view inside Tory circles that eventually sleaze and scandal would lead to his downfall.

He may have survived a number of near misses up to now, but this latest episode may just be a bridge too far.

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