Partygate, Covid and another election defeat: Could things get any worse for Boris Johnson?

Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson speaking at the Pendulum Summit at the Dublin Convention Centre.  Brian Lawless/PA
Things could get worse for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana says Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

You almost couldn’t make up the latest twist to the Downing Street partygate scandal.

For fresh allegations to now engulf the man charged with investigating the entire thing, seems almost unbelievable - not least because rumours about Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s own parties were already circulating when he was chosen to lead the inquiry.

And yet, when journalists asked about whether his appointment was appropriate at a briefing with the prime minister’s official spokesman and a senior Downing Street source, we were told: “You can be assured due diligence will have been observed” .

Last night, Mr Case recused himself - not because he admitted breaking any rules but to maintain confidence in the investigation.

The Cabinet Office denied any in-person drinks, but did admit to a virtual quiz with six members of staff participating from their office desks, with drinks.

Mr Case, they claimed, walked past and acknowledged them- but did not take part.

Cabinet secretary Simon Case. Credit: PA

On Friday night, I heard a new rumour - that Mr Case had told Downing Street about the event before taking up the role, but they pushed on with his appointment anyway.

I’ve put it to both Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, but neither have given me an answer either way.

Sue Gray, who is taking over the investigation, has a hell of a reputation.

The second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is formidable (and quite scary), according to one former special adviser I spoke to.

A former civil servant added she was “very sharp, very tough, very experienced at balancing political imperatives with civil service integrity”.

So accusations of the investigation being soft are likely to be reduced, but the chances of a tough outcome have perhaps increased.

Sue Gray has been appointed to head up the inquiry after Simon Case stepped down. Credit: PA

Overall, it’s another major headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leading some to ask: could things get any worse for him? Judging by the “grim” mood for MPs - yes they could.

MPs are obviously worried about partygate, questions over Johnson’s flat refurbishment and - (for a large number) - new restrictions over Covid.

But arguably, North Shropshire was the biggest blow of all.

The Conservative leadership says the huge by-election defeat was a mid-term protest vote driven by the Downing Street Christmas party scandal - and it certainly is the case that it was a big turning point that I heard on the doorstep there.

“I totally understand people’s frustrations. I hear what the voters are saying in North Shropshire" - Boris Johnson says after by-election defeat in North Shropshire, a previously safe seat.

But senior Lib Dems were telling me they could win the seat before the scandal took off because of people were saying they were fed up of being taken for granted and frustrated about local issues and the NHS. And Chesham and Amersham predated the scandal completely.

We talk a lot about newer Tory voters in the “red wall” across the north and Midlands. But what the Lib Dems have done in two by-elections now is chip away at what you might call the “blue wall”- taking traditional Tory votes away.

If it is a mid-term protest, it has been a long time since we had a similar sized one.

The last time the Lib Dems beat the Tories in two by-elections in a year was 1993 - ahead of the 1997 landslide.

All of that is incredibly worrying for a lot of Tory MPs. For Mr Johnson to keep their backing, he needs to show them he’s a winner - and the next chance to do that could be some way off.