Party political: The scandal that brought down Boris Johnson
This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year
In a year when war broke out in Europe, when the pandemic continued to exact a heavy toll, and when temperature records were broken everywhere amid the worsening impact of man-made climate change, it was a tawdry Westminster scandal which dominated headlines and re-shaped UK politics.
While partygate did ultimately end the previously indestructible career of Boris Johnson, it was a long, lingering death. It began with a report in the Daily Mirror in November 2021 and only ended with the Prime Minister’s grudging resignation the following July.
The intervening period brought a steady drip, drip of new allegations as lies were layered upon lies amid debate over what constituted a “work event” and whether or not one can truly be “ambushed by a cake”.
In a febrile and dispiriting time for UK politics, we learned that Downing Street staff consumed suitcases of booze before, on occasion, vomiting and passing out at their desks. A previously obscure civil servant, Sue Gray, became a household name.
The first allegations relating to the Prime Minister’s conduct appeared on 30 November, when formidable Scottish political reporter Pippa Crerar revealed that Johnson and his Downing Street staff had broken Covid laws by partying in the run-up to Christmas 2020, a time when the rest of the country was in lockdown.
There was no denial from Downing Street, rather a statement which said Covid rules had “been followed at all times”. It was a form of words we’d all become increasingly familiar with in the weeks and months that followed.
The next significant development in the story came when footage emerged of government spokeswoman Allegra Stratton joking about lockdown parties during a mock press conference which was filmed on 22 December 2020.
Stratton, at that time the Prime Minister’s press secretary, laughed with colleagues about “cheese and wine” and whether the event was a business meeting or not. She resigned after making a tearful statement just a few days after the leaked footage emerged.
The first partygate details had begun to come out in the weeks following the COP26 climate summit, which was held in Glasgow. The stakes were high as an increasing number of extreme weather events both at home and abroad underlined the need for the world to take drastic action to limit carbon emissions.
Under the UK’s presidency of the event there were major agreements on deforestation and on reducing methane emissions, but on the crucial issue of fossil fuels, a late intervention by both China and India meant an agreement to “phase out” coal was changed to “phase down” at the eleventh hour. Alok Sharma, the UK Government minister who acted as COP president and who had worked tirelessly to achieve a consensus, appeared close to tears.
Fears the summit would turn into a Covid super-spreader event proved unfounded, but it wasn’t long before Scotland and the rest of the UK were in the grips of another wave of the virus. The first cases of Omicron, a new, more contagious variant, were discovered in the UK in late November.
Omicron’s transmissibility meant it quickly became the dominant variant across the UK, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warning of a “tsunami of infections”.
“We face a renewed and very severe challenge in the face of the Omicron variant,” the First Minister told a press briefing on 10 December. “To be blunt, because of the much greater and faster transmissibility of this new variant, we may be facing, indeed we may be starting to experience, a potential tsunami of infections.”
As many people prepared to have Christmas lunches with colleagues, Public Health Scotland “strongly urged” them not to do so.
Amid surging case numbers, a limited number of restrictions were introduced by the Scottish Government to limit the spread. However, there was no return to the strict measures put in place at the end of 2020, which had effectively cancelled Christmas for millions of families.
And it was the government’s actions in the run-up to Christmas 2020 which continued to dominate the front pages. Following Stratton’s resignation, the Prime Minister apologised “unreservedly” in the Commons, telling MPs he was “shocked” by the emergence of the video featuring Downing Street officials.
Johnson said Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary and the UK’s most senior civil servant, would investigate the circumstances surrounding the footage.
“I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and apologise for the impression that it gives,” Johnson told Prime Minister’s Questions.
“I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party, and that no Covid rules were broken.”
That last line was one that would come back to haunt him.
The start of 2022 saw a flurry of diplomatic activity as western leaders travelled to Moscow and Kyiv amid sabre-rattling from President Vladimir Putin over a conflict in Ukraine. Johnson flew to the Ukrainian capital warning that an invasion would be a humanitarian, political and military disaster for the Kremlin, while French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz both held talks with Putin.
It was all to be in vain, however, with Putin shocking the world with the announcement that a “special military operation” had begun in the early hours of 24 February. Many feared the Russian onslaught would be brutal and swift, but if the actions of the Kremlin and its forces were undoubtedly in contravention of humanitarian law, its progress was severely limited by a heroic Ukrainian defence.
In the days and weeks following the invasion, Ukraine’s leader President Volodymyr Zelensky went from being little known in the West to becoming an international icon of the resistance. Swapping his suit and tie for military fatigues, he let out a rallying cry for his people as foreign leaders fell over themselves to be pictured alongside him.
At the beginning of March, Zelensky addressed the Commons via a video link, receiving a standing ovation before he had uttered a single word. When he did finally speak, he invoked the spirit of Winston Churchill, echoing the wartime premier’s “we will fight them on the beaches” speech. He would later address the US Congress, and even the Glastonbury festival.
But if the Ukrainians had long since won the moral victory and the PR battle, the Russians were increasingly mounting a bloody war of attrition which failed to spare even the most vulnerable civilian targets.
On 9 March, three people including a child were killed following an airstrike on a maternity and children’s hospital in the besieged coastal city of Mariupol.
Zelensky called the attack a war crime. “What kind of a country is Russia that it is afraid of hospitals and maternity wards and destroys them?” he asked.
Sadly, the incident was to open a bloody new chapter in the conflict, with soft targets routinely targeted by the Russian forces.
Yet despite the outbreak of war on the European continent, the partygate allegations continued to come. While the conflict did initially buy Johnson some time, it failed to knock his behaviour off the front pages altogether.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross had called for the PM to resign when it emerged in January that he had attended a garden party during lockdown. An image obtained by The Guardian showed Johnson and his wife Carrie with wine and cheese in the garden behind Number 10. The gathering had taken place the previous May during lockdown, with the image belying the earlier suggestion it had been “a work event”.
Ross would, however, later change his position due to the war in Ukraine, withdrawing the letter sent to the powerful 1922 Committee.
“There will be a time and place to debate partygate but we should put that on pause while there is war in Europe,” Ross said.
“It’s essential that we all fully support what the UK Government is doing. In light of Russia’s appalling actions, the government and Prime Minister need our backing, and they have mine and the whole Scottish Conservative party.”
Eventually even Ross would have to recant, however, as the evidence against the PM continued to stack up.
Away from the ongoing scandal at Westminster, politics at Holyrood felt like plain sailing at times in the early months of the year. Nevertheless, there was one issue threatening to push the SNP off course.
In April, Auditor General Stephen Boyle raised serious concerns about the project to build two new ferries. Boyle told a committee of MSPs it was not enough to say lessons would be learned, calling instead for a fuller review of what had gone wrong.
Initially priced at £97m, the two CalMac vessels are now expected to cost more than £250m and will be around five years late.
Boyle told a Holyrood committee it was too “glib” to say that lessons could be learned, while also expressing frustration about the lack of government documentation surrounding the contracts.
When the matter was later raised at First Minister’s Questions, Tory leader Ross called the ferry fiasco “one of the worst public spending disasters since devolution”.
Sturgeon defended the awarding of the ferry contract to Ferguson Marine, telling MSPs, “the buck stops with me” before teasingly adding: “Who was transport minister at the time in question is, of course, a matter of public record. That was Derek Mackay.”
Mackay, who stood down at the last election after messaging a 16-year-old boy on social media, has been invited to give evidence to MSPs later this year on the awarding of the contracts.
Meanwhile, with the long-awaited legislation to reform the Gender Recognition Act finally introduced at Holyrood, the debate around trans rights became ever more divisive. What had once been a largely fringe medical issue became a much wider debate about women’s rights, participation in sport, the law, and health interventions for young people.
The issue also became central to the Tory leadership contest but the concerns of women who argue that gender self-identity puts them at risk were dismissed as “not valid” by Sturgeon.
At Westminster, the scandals were continuing to mount up for the beleaguered Prime Minister. May had seen the publication of the long-awaited Sue Gray report, which found that several gatherings which took place at Downing Street over a 20-month period were “not in line with Covid guidance at the time”.
The report investigated 16 events among which the police found multiple breaches of Covid rules during the pandemic and ultimately criticised both the culture and leadership within Downing Street. One memorable passage described a party where staff ate pizza and drank prosecco while singing karaoke. The “excessive consumption of alcohol” led to one of the attendees being sick and two others being involved in “an altercation”.
Already under fire for his initial backing of Owen Paterson after the Tory MP had been found to have broken lobbying rules, Johnson had been handed a fixed penalty notice by the police a month earlier along with his wife and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
In the weeks that followed, it subsequently emerged that Johnson had appointed Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip despite knowing of allegations about the MP’s conduct.
In July, the MP for Tamworth resigned amid allegations he had groped two men at a private members’ club. Pincher said he had “drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people”.
After weeks of mounting pressure on the PM, the dam finally burst. Days later and within minutes of each other, both health secretary Sajid Javid and Sunak tendered their resignations, setting in train a remarkable chain of events that would ultimately seal Johnson’s fate.
Despite more than 50 government resignations over the following 48 hours, Johnson initially looked determined to cling onto power, reshuffling his cabinet and appointing Nadim Zahawi to replace Sunak at the Treasury. Michelle Donelan, who had been appointed education secretary, resigned after just 35 hours in post.
But eventually even Boris Johnson couldn’t style it out any longer. He made his resignation speech outside the famous black door of Number 10 Downing Street on 7 July, the now terminated premier signing off at his final PMQs a few days later with “Hasta la vista, baby”.
A week later, the race to replace him had been whittled down to the final two candidates – Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Seen as the continuity candidate, and the true successor to Johnson, Truss was heavy favourite.
Whoever wins will face the prospect of growing demands for a second independence referendum after Sturgeon announced her intention to hold a vote in October of next year. The First Minister sought to pull a rabbit out of the hat when she announced plans to press ahead with a referendum even without a Section 30 order from the UK Government.
Instead, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain QC has made a reference to the Supreme Court, asking it to rule on whether it is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum. The court is expected to hear the case at the start of October.
Asked about her plans for dealing with the threat of another referendum, Truss told a leadership hustings that she planned to “ignore” Sturgeon, who she accused of being “an attention seeker”. It remained to be seen just how successful a strategy that would be.
For his part, Johnson signed off by writing to the First Minister to refuse her request for a Section 30 – one of his last acts before announcing his resignation. The Prime Minister who promised to “Get Brexit Done” and who took Britain out of the EU also leaves behind another union – that between England and Scotland – in arguably the most parlous state it’s been in for many years.
Yet despite his own ignominious end, and the sleaze and dithering which came to mark his time in office, Johnson’s shadow is likely to hang heavy over his party for many years to come.
His supporters argued that in delivering Brexit and in leading Britain through the pandemic, Johnson had “got the big decisions right”. An impending economic downturn, an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis and more than 180,000 lives lost to Covid would suggest otherwise.
This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year