When pictures splashed on social media on Monday afternoon showing a grinning Boris Johnson holding a glass of sparkling wine aloft in a partygate toast to staff, it sent a bolt of panic through No10.
Downing Street had been bracing itself for the publication of Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into the scandal, and the leaked photos showing the Prime Minister holding court at a leaving drinks meant all hopes of limiting the damage to a single day were popped like a party balloon.
There were fears that the final report might contain dozens of deeply embarrassing photographs and plunge Mr Johnson deeper into a crisis.
“The pictures gave us another day of bad headlines, and then meant that when the report actually came out people also got excited about the second set,” a Downing Street insider said.
In the end, Ms Gray’s dreaded dossier, while undoubtedly damaging, was by no means fatal to the Prime Minister.
Details, such as cleaning staff being verbally abused and having to clean up red wine spills and vomit, were terrible. But the senior civil servant’s decision not to publish any pictures other than those taken by official photographers had no doubt spared both Mr Johnson’s and his staff’s blushes.
The smoking gun that the Prime Minister’s opponents had hoped for was not there, prompting him to declare he had been “vindicated”.
But if the PM believed that he had “got away with it” – as his Principal Private Secretary at the time, Martin Reynolds, was quoted as saying in the report in relation to the rule-breaking gatherings – he was mistaken.
‘A complete and total mess’
As one senior Tory described it, the PM’s week had been a “complete and total mess – politically, philosophically, personally”.
The report led to seven more Tory MPs publicly calling for the Prime Minister to resign, and the real fear bubbling up among backbenchers is what Mr Johnson’s continued leadership means for their own political futures.
Another MP – Paul Holmes – yesterday resigned from his position as a parliamentary private secretary to Priti Patel over what he described as the “toxic culture” within Downing Street, in a bid to disassociate himself from the Government (though he stopped short of calling for PM to resign) He currently enjoys a sizeable 15,000 majority in his constituency of Eastleigh in Hampshire, but it has traditionally been a Lib Dem / Tory swing seat.
Many other MPs are now concluding that far from being their biggest electoral asset, Boris Johnson is in danger of becoming a political liability.
“All of the opposition parties – most of all the Lib Dems – do not want the PM to go anywhere,” one Tory defending a key marginal told in. “Ask yourself why that is.”
It was telling that among the six Tories demanding Mr Johnson quit were Stephen Hammond, who is defending the ultra-marginal Wimbledon seat, and Angela Richardson, the MP for Guildford, who faces stiff competition from the Lib Dems.
On the same day Mr Johnson was attempting to douse the remaining flames from the partygate scandal, Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden was hosting a workshop in Leicestershire with Tory MPs representing marginal seats.
Mr Dowden revealed the Conservatives’ “80/20” election plan, under which the party will campaign hard to defend its 80 most marginal seats, while pushing to capture 20 more.
According to a party source the meeting was “very positive”. But this did not chime with MPs in more liberal, leafy constituencies whose voters are furious over Mr Johnson’s apparent excesses in No10.
“As things stand we will lose at least a few dozen seats at least to the Liberal Democrats at the next election in the Remain-dominated south-east,” one former minister predicted. “Once gone, they’re gone for a generation. Trust me on that. ”
The senior Tory said it was too early to tell whether support for the Liberal Democrats would extend to the more Leave-voting south-west of the country, but did not rule it out, stating: “The Libs have a much stronger traditional base, organization and membership there than in the south-east. People should not be fooled just because Labor came second in Tiverton and Honiton. ”
The by-election in that Devon constituency – triggered after Tory MP Neil Parish resigned after watching pornography in the Commons chamber – falls on the same day as the Wakefield by-election, triggered after Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for sexually assaulting a boy .
Both pose particular challenges for the Prime Minister as he attempts to appeal to both his newly-found supporters in former Labor heartlands, while trying to keep hold of disgruntled voters in the South.
While few believe that Mr Johnson’s role in the Partygate scandal will decide the next election, with the cost of living crisis expected to dominate how voters decide when they head to the polls, his handling of the affair has gone down particularly poorly in seats in the South – which is being exploited by the Lib Dems.
They privately describe the Prime Minister as “our biggest electoral asset”. Party sources say they are now deploying tactics used by the Tories in the 2019 general election against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party.
One party source working in target seats in the South said: “There is no question that lifelong Conservative voters are telling us they’ll never vote Conservative again because of Boris Johnson.”
A senior minister told in that working out how to spread Mr Johnson’s appeal across “red wall” voters in the North and “small-c ‘conservatives” or “small-l liberals” in the South is the “big strategic question” for the party.
“And it’s one we do not know the answer to yet,” they admitted.
The minister added: “Conservative-Lib Dem waverers liked [David] Cameron; they are less keen on Brexiteers in general and Boris Johnson in particular. ”
Other senior Tories, such as former justice secretary Robert Buckland, warned that if the party were to suffer a “heavy defeat” in the two by-elections, then Mr Johnson would have to “reflect” on his leadership – but he stopped short of calling for the Prime Minister to go.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The Week in WestminsterMr Buckland said the PM was not beyond reform, but added: “There is no doubt that if both those by-elections are heavy defeats, then that is a serious question about how the Government is performing and changes will have to be made.”
‘The Sue Gray tax’
In an attempt to draw a line under the Partygate saga, and provide MPs something substantial to sell to voters, Downing Street accelerated their plans to announce a generous economic package to help those struggling with the cost of living crisis, including imposing a new windfall tax on the big oil companies.
In a sign of the dysfunction at the heart of government, there were no plans to make any interventions at all on the cost of living at the start of the week. June had been pencilled in for a series of announcements on regulatory changes designed to bring down inflation, but the Treasury had no fixed timetable for a new package of fiscal measures to support households.
The appearance of Jonathan Brearley, the Ofgem chief executive, in front of MPs on Monday, during which he warned the energy price cap was on course to reach £ 2,800 a year, was seen by those in government as an attempt to bounce Rishi Sunak into acting sooner.
One Government official told in they were in no doubt the regulator’s move was deliberate: “It looked like he was rolling the pitch for an announcement by the Chancellor.”
But the decision to go ahead with a £ 15bn package of handouts and new taxes was not made until less than 24 hours before it was announced, sparking accusations it was a cynical attempt to shift the news agenda, which had been unrelentingly bad for the PM .
The announcement was widely welcomed by Tory MPs, with Rob Halfon, who has been among the lead campaigners for more support, insisting it demonstrated “compassionate Conservatism” in action.
Others, however, were far less pleased. One backbencher representing a former safe Labor seat complained that Mr Johnson was trying to buy off voters with the support package.
“I’m never happy when taxpayers are being bribed with their own money,” the Tory sniffed. “I am a Conservative after all. As for the windfall tax it should be called the Sue Gray tax. ”
MPs are also privately fuming with the lack of strategic planning coming from No 10, having been forced to vote against a windfall tax last week, only for it to become government policy just days later.
Many Tories believe the absence of a viable leadership challenger to Mr Johnson is what is keeping him in power, but how long that position can hold is occupying the majority on the backbenches.
As one senior Tory said: “There’s a pent up anger there and general cynicism which is dangerous for Johnson if he does something else – which he inevitably will at some stage – the only question is when.”