Head bowed, voice dark, Boris begged for forgiveness and time. ‘I’ve learned enough to know that there were things we just didn’t do well,’ he told the Commons last Wednesday, before adding: ‘All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her investigation of this day and several others, so that all the facts can be established.
But there is no need to wait for Sue Gray. The facts are already established and they are clear. Despite the ban on social gatherings, on May 20, 2020, Downing Street held a party.
“It would be nice to make the most of this beautiful weather,” said the invitation from No 10’s Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds, before urging the 100 guests to “bring your own booze!”
And so about 40 of them did. The prime minister was there, as was his wife Carrie Symonds, who sipped gin. They mixed for 25 minutes. “I implicitly believed it was a business event,” Boris said.
There’s no need to wait for Sue Gray. The facts are already established and they are clear. Despite a ban on social gatherings, on May 20, 2020, Downing Street held a party
It’s possible. Maybe he didn’t spot the trestle tables laden with food and liquor. By the time Reynolds was told of the political dangers posed by the rally – “he was rushing about in that languid, floppy-haired way he does, saying, ‘Oh my God, do you really think this is a problem? ‘ a Number 10 manager told me – maybe he didn’t pass on the warning.
When a senior aide directly questioned the wisdom of attending a party held 55 minutes after Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden ordered the country – from this very building – to “limit contact with other people”, he might have misheard or misunderstood.
But that doesn’t matter. Boris knew what the rules were, because they were his rules. Boris knew he was supposed to avoid unnecessary contact – both at work and socially – because he had spent the year repeatedly asking all of us to do just that.
But there is another fact that must be faced. However angry the country feels towards its prime minister, this morning that prime minister faces a coup. A meticulously planned and brilliantly pursued putsch at the hands of his former adviser and now nemesis Dom Cummings
And Boris knows – because he admitted it and apologized for it on Wednesday – that he broke those rules. As benign or damning as Sue Gray’s verdict is, nothing can now alter that reality.
But there is another fact that must be faced. However angry the country feels towards its prime minister, this morning that prime minister faces a coup. A meticulously planned and brilliantly pursued putsch at the hands of his former adviser and now nemesis Dom Cummings.
Cummings, to his credit, made no secret of his strategy. His campaign is being run in plain sight, via his own public blog. His ambition – to oust the democratically elected leader of Her Majesty’s Government – is one he has expressed frequently since leaving Downing Street himself in November 2020.
And the fact that he hopes to install current Chancellor Rishi Sunak in place of Prime Minister is an open secret at Westminster.
“Dom wants revenge,” one of his allies told me, “and you can see that in the way it plays out. It’s just one shot after another. He used to say, ‘ When they’re down, you have to keep hitting them, and that’s what he does to Boris.
While revenge is obviously part of his motivation, it’s not everything. Clearly Cummings genuinely believes Boris is wasting the opportunities presented by his Brexit and general election triumphs, a fear widely shared by many Tory ministers and MPs.
He also rightly worried about the influence Carrie Johnson wields over the government. But there is another key reason why Dom thinks the man elected by the British people in the 2019 mini landslide should no longer lead the country. He believes he should run it himself.
Once again, he does not hide it. The most telling moment of his famous evidence session before the Health and Science Select Committee was when he revealed he sat Boris down and told him: ‘This building is chaos… but you have more afraid that I have the power to stop chaos than you are chaos.’
It is Cummings’ lust for power that frames the current crisis. That’s what’s behind the blog that revealed the 20th party. That’s what’s behind the leaks and heists on other parties and Covid indiscretions. This is what so brutally but effectively brought Boris to his knees.
And for many people, that’s irrelevant. Including many Conservative MPs. “I don’t care why Cummings does this,” one told me. “He revealed what is happening. If a murderer goes to the police and gives evidence on a serial killer, you hit the serial killer. It doesn’t matter where you got the evidence from.
If Boris is ousted by his party, it will mark the third defenestration of a Conservative elected prime minister in five years. Then voters will say, ‘These guys don’t think they need us.’ Their attitude is that it’s their job to choose who rules us, and it’s just up to us to approve it’
Another told me: ‘I can see what Cummings is doing, but we’re beyond that now. We must act, and we must act quickly. There are already 40 names in [MPs who have submitted letters of no-confidence in the PM to the 1922 Committee]. And we must continue. Right now it’s Boris in crisis. But if we wait, it will be the whole Conservative Party in crisis.
Which is right, but overlooks a number of important truths. The first is a simple principle. Five years ago a referendum was held in which the British people decided to take their own destiny into their own hands. Two years ago, these same people elected Boris Prime Minister, with an overwhelming mandate. On both occasions, they were promised that it would bring them back in control. Don’t give control to Dom Cummings.
Then there is politics. If Boris is ousted by his party, it will mark the third defenestration of a Conservative elected prime minister in five years. Then voters will say, ‘These guys don’t think they need us.’ Their attitude is that it’s their job to choose who rules us, and it’s just up to us to approve it. And the reason they’ll say that, is because it’ll be true.
And then there is the last problem. That is to say, if Dom Cummings takes Boris down now, it won’t be the end of the bloodshed, but the beginning. Cummings will be seen as the evil genius who won the Brexit referendum. He will be seen as the puppeteer who managed to make Boris a majority government.
And he will – rightly – be seen as the malevolent Machiavelli who cast the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom into political oblivion despite having outlived his usefulness.
Does anyone think that right now – the moment when he so obviously wields the ultimate power he’s so longed for for so long – Cummings is just going to just shrug his shoulders and walk away? Do people honestly think he will sit on his hands in the next Tory leadership election?
That he won’t deploy his talents to support his favorite Rishi Sunak? What if they are successfully deployed, and Sunak then disappoints him like Boris did, won’t it end up backfiring in the same ruthless way?
On May 5, the country goes to the polls for the local elections. And this is when Boris should face his judgement. Maybe he can change his mind.
Maybe people will see his handling of the Covid pandemic in circles. By then, he might have found a solution to the cost of living crisis. Or stopped the smugglers in their tracks.
Or maybe he won’t. The collapse in support currently revealed in the polls – particularly in the Red Wall seats – may have turned into an irresistible flood. The nation’s anger at the spectacle of Downing Street partying as the Queen and her people mourned may not have abated.
But either way, it’s up to the people to deliver the final verdict on Boris and the events of the past week. Not a faceless official. Not an embittered former adviser. Not shaky Tory MPs.
There can be no Cummings Coup. If this is to happen, it must be the voters – and the voters alone – telling Boris the party is finally over.