PM's trip to India overshadowed by partygate as poll shows drop in public trust

Instead of the major trade trip it was intended to be, Boris Johnson's trip to India has been dominated by one topic - partygate, ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports

As journalists huddled around Boris Johnson on his plane headed to India for a trade visit, it was clear how he felt about partygate: totally fed up and desperate to move the story on.

"I think politics has taught me one thing - which is that you're better off talking and focussing on the things that matter and the things that make a real difference to the electorate," he said.

"And not about politicians himself."

The problem for the prime minister is that polling shows partygate has had a significant impact - particularly on the question of trust.

Polling by YouGov this week shows that 74% of the population see Johnson as "untrustworthy", and even among Conservative voters, that figure is high - 55%.

That type of data is unnerving for Tory MPs - many of whom will credit the prime minister for helping win their seats in 2019.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference in Delhi, on the last day of his two day trip to India Credit: PA

But despite it, the PM had managed to ease discontent on his own backbenches in recent months.

In January, many were openly plotting to oust him - and others told me privately they thought the time had come for a "managed exit".

Fast forward a few weeks, and an impressive response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine - and those same MPs were coming out to loyally bat for their leader, with some plotters even telling me they'd withdrawn letters of no confidence and were ready to show their support.

The question then, is how bad was yesterday's debacle in Westminster for the Conservative leader.

From the perspective of the trip to India - it clearly felt like a disaster.

Day one of what was meant to be a major trade visit to accelerate plans for a critical post-Brexit trade deal was completely overshadowed by events back home.

Standing in front of the stunning Akshardham temple in Gujarat in the searing heat, as the light slowly faded, Johnson wasn't focused on trade or even Ukraine but question after question on partygate.

What was he hiding; would he resign; how could he ever move the focus on?

By day two, Downing Street managed to edge the conversation forward with announcements on Ukraine (reopening the embassy in Kyiv, sending tanks to Poland, longstanding security guarantees) and an ambitious aim to complete a free trade deal by October.

Partygate was still asked about - repeatedly - but it wasn't the top focus by the end of the day.

However, what will ultimately matter for Johnson is how Tory MPs feel about it all.

And there is clear anger about what unravelled yesterday.

Many were unwilling to vote against Labour's motion, calling for Johnson to face an investigation on whether he misled parliament because they dreaded the consequence - their faces plastered on opposition leaflets as backing Johnson, days before local elections.

An attempt to delay the vote was mishandled, not least because the original motion already had a delay inbuilt, and resulted in threats from several PPS's (the MPs who support specific secretaries of state) of resignations. But even those who were ready to back the delay ended the day frustrated.

"I was going to back them," said one MP, who said there were rumours that, after the U-turn, even the Tory chief whip was ready to back the motion.

In the end, no vote was necessary as Tories scattered across the country to their constituencies to avoid any showdown.

Asking the MP how damaging this was, they argued it was a problem.

"It is like a dripping tap - drip, drip, drip," they said. A dripping tap that could worsen with more fines, linked to more serious sounding breaches of the Covid guidance, is already allowing more MPs to openly call for Johnson to go.

But for all that - one thing was very clear in India.

Asked if he might resign in any circumstance, the prime minister said he couldn't see one and insisted that he was staying in place - up to the India - UK trade deal aim of October, and long beyond. He told me he would lead his party into the next election.

Ultimately that will be up to Tory MPs - who will assess his electability at every possible moment, including the upcoming local elections. But he is absolutely determined to hang on.