British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just can't get rid of his conservative enemy Boris Johnson. It doesn't matter which topics Sunak takes on and what he wants to talk about - the talk always comes back to the scandal-ridden former prime minister. The Guardian newspaper commented: "Johnson's legacy haunts Sunak." The incumbent could not bring himself to publicly criticize his former boss. That could damage him now.
But one after anonther. Ironically, on Johnson's 59th birthday, the House of Commons in London debated a committee's devastating report on the "Partygate" affair. Its conclusion: then-Prime Minister Johnson repeatedly lied to the House of Commons over the Downing Street lockdown celebrations scandal. In response, Johnson loudly berated the members of the committee, including several Conservative MPs. But he was followed by less than a handful of his confidants: only seven MPs voted in the House of Commons against the report and against the withdrawal of Johnson's parliamentary pass.
Johnson's birthday three years ago had also turned out to be fateful. Because he was celebrated with cake despite the corona contact restrictions, he later received a fine from the police - as the first incumbent prime minister in British history. As it turned out, this was not an isolated case: there was carousing and partying in the government buildings while the country remained in lockdown.
But when pictures and eyewitness reports became public, Johnson denied everything. All the rules had been followed, he claimed in Parliament. When that was no longer tenable, he stated that he had not heard anything about the celebrations. When it became clear that he himself had attended the party, he took the position that he had not realized that the celebrations were illegal. The committee didn't believe him.
Only a few confidants defended Johnson
The debate was now about whether Parliament would adopt the findings of the investigation and impose sanctions on Johnson. Johnson forestalled a 90-day suspension recommended by the committee by resigning from office. The sentence was significantly higher because Johnson had previously vilified the committee as "kangaroo court". He feels like a victim of a politically motivated witch hunt by Brexit opponents and personal enemies.
But in the end, only a few Johnson confidants defended the ex-premier. Johnson called his people back – also because there was a clear majority against him, because this time there was no parliamentary group obligation. Many Tory MPs, including Johnson's successor Liz Truss, never even showed up in the House of Commons. Others openly solicited approval. Johnson's predecessor Theresa May spoke of a "small but important step to restore people's trust in MPs".
Opposition accuses Sunak of weak leadership
Sunak himself missed the debate. At the same time, the Prime Minister received Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. Sunak left open how he would vote in the event of a vote, even after multiple inquiries. "It is important that the government does not interfere because it is a matter for Parliament and MPs as individuals, not as members of government," the PM said in an ITV interview.
Penny Mordaunt, the minister responsible for parliamentary affairs, sat almost alone on the government bench. Observers spoke of an embarrassing impression for Sunak, who had promised more integrity when he took office. The opposition immediately accused the prime minister of poor leadership.
Sunak's caution is quite appropriate. Johnson has hardly any allies in the Tory faction, and according to a Yougov survey, the British as a whole no longer want to know much about the ex-prime minister. But the same poll also found that Johnson is still more popular with conservative voters than Sunak, whom many at the grassroots level blame for the populist's demise. "How do you feel about Boris?" With a view to the parliamentary elections planned for 2024, this should become a crucial question for many Tory candidates. The reviled ex-Prime Minister has repeatedly made it clear that he does not consider his political career to be over.