Partygate lays bare the casual carelessness of Johnson’s ancien régime

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“Let them eat cake” could become an enduring metaphor for this government. With the prime minister and chancellor under fire for raising taxes while families struggle with energy and food bills, their police fines for being at an impromptu birthday party during lockdown have brought the ghost of Marie Antoinette to British politics.

There are conflicting reports as to whether any morsels of gateau were actually consumed after Boris Johnson was “ambushed by cake” in the Cabinet room. Of all the Downing Street parties under police investigation, this one feels marginal: a brief celebration with staff who’d already been in meetings together. Nevertheless, it makes Johnson the first serving prime minister to be found guilty of a criminal offence. The aftertaste is especially bitter for chancellor Rishi Sunak, who had turned up for what he thought was a Covid meeting, but whose accidental presence at the party could now blight his political future.

Sunak’s transformation from leading contender to replace Johnson to a man now being kept afloat by the prime minister, is a parable of how fast political fortunes can change. Last summer he topped a poll of Conservative activists asked for their favourite to succeed Johnson, with his nearest rival Liz Truss not even coming close. “Dishy Rishi” — a moniker from his City days — had a slick PR operation burnishing his image, and an appetite for numbers and detail which put his boss to shame. But in only three short weeks, his popularity has collapsed. This has changed the odds of Johnson surviving, partly because it has left the Tories without any clear figure to unite around.

It’s not Sunak’s wealth which is the main issue, but his judgment. The man who looked so sure-footed during the pandemic has stumbled over a mini budget which felt tone-deaf to voter struggles, and his blind spot about his wife’s tax affairs. The instinct to protect his family from prying eyes has jarred with the clear public interest in knowing that his wife was a non dom who was not paying full UK tax on dividends from her father’s company. This may have been legal, but it was politically unwise. The additional revelation that Sunak still held a US green card at the start of his tenure as chancellor has made it easy to portray him as a wealthy man who is out of touch and perhaps not even fully committed to Britain. It is a gift to Keir Starmer, who expects the next election to be fought on the cost of living.

Some naivety is unsurprising in a man who has shot to the top of politics after a stellar City career. But it has rattled fellow MPs who were looking for a competent leader to replace the reckless Johnson. Sunak should have been open about his wife’s tax affairs much earlier. And the constant rumours that he might resign do not endear him to his peers.

The hours of silence which elapsed between Sunak being notified of the fine and his unreserved apology suggest he had been considering his options. Had he quit, he could have regained some of the moral high ground. In deciding not to, he has let Johnson off the hook. Yet he clearly feels he was unfairly fined for an event in which he was only peripherally and accidentally involved. Once again, the prime minister has tarnished those in his orbit.

The only minister to resign so far has been justice minister Lord Wolfson, who had the integrity to declare that he could no longer serve a government which repeatedly broke the law. Wolfson notably objected not only to the rule-breaking, but also to the “official response”. Johnson’s attempt to shrug this off by stating that he now feels “an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people” was simply woeful.

The coming weeks may change the equation again. Scotland Yard is likely to fine the prime minister for at least two other events: a leaving party for his former communications director Lee Cain, at which he gave a speech, and a party in the Johnsons’ flat above Number 11. Scrutiny of that second event will expose the casual nature of Johnson’s government, in which classified intelligence documents were left lying around in the flat until new protocols kept them secured in the office.

Sue Gray, the civil servant whose report into lockdown rule-breaking will be released after the May elections, has apparently been passed some of the hundreds of photographs which have been given to the police. If any of these are published, they could yet prove fatal. As one of my former Number 10 colleagues says: “who on earth takes photos of themselves at work?” The prime minister’s allies are already trying to blame Number 10 staff, but this is the same old defence: Johnson is not in charge when anything goes wrong, but if it goes right, he takes the credit.

Tory ministers will continue to defend the indefensible until MPs decide he is an electoral liability — an early test is likely to be a by-election in Wakefield. But those ministers have surely put themselves out of the running for the top job. The argument that leaders cannot be changed during a war is an affront to history. The idea that the fines are no more serious than a speeding ticket is undermined by the fact this administration has broken the very laws it made. The claim that Johnson did not knowingly mislead parliament looks increasingly thin. The odds must be rising that the next Tory leader will come from outside the current Cabinet.

Only three MPs have called on the prime minister to resign. The best thing to be said for the rest is that with Sunak on the ropes, they can’t agree on a candidate to anoint without a contest. But they all know that Johnson’s “cakeist” philosophy will keep getting him into trouble. You can’t have your birthday cake and eat it too.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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