'Partygate': what could happen next?

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Boris Johnson's position as UK prime minister is on the line after a series of revelations about coronavirus lockdown-breaking parties at his Downing Street office and residence.

What could happen next?

Johnson quits

Don't bet on a Johnson resignation.

The 57-year-old former journalist has defied gravity throughout his career, bouncing back from revelations about lies and extra-marital affairs, racist language and controversial views.

"He's always been able to get away with things that mere mortals can't," former prime minister David Cameron told Sky News recently.

Johnson, likened by Cameron to a "greased piglet" because of his ability to slip out of tight spots, may see his apology this week for attending one of the events as enough to get him off the hook.

He could also be largely exonerated from responsibility by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, who is conducting a fact-finding investigation into the claims.

The Times on Friday said Gray's report was likely to conclude there was no criminal breach of coronavirus rules.

It also said Gray was expected not to pronounce on whether Johnson broke the code of conduct for ministers, and would recommend disciplinary action for staff responsible.

Johnson is seen as likely to want to hang on, so soon after securing an 80-seat majority in parliament at election just two years ago.

In his favour, the claims of repeated rule-breaking have so far seen only five Conservative MPs publicly call for his head, while his Cabinet has largely rallied around him.

But if senior ministers break ranks, he could decide it is time to go, prompting an internal leadership election that could last up to six weeks.

Johnson ousted

Gray's report will be scrutinised to see how critical she is of Johnson himself.

Strong criticism could embolden more Tory MPs to put their heads above the parapet and declare no confidence in his leadership.

The Conservative party has form for ruthlessly ejecting leaders who are seen as an electoral liability.

Margaret Thatcher was ousted by a leadership challenge in 1990 while Cameron quit in the aftermath of his failed "remain" campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

His successor Theresa May stepped down after losing party support for her EU divorce deal in 2019.

At least 15 percent or 54 of the 360 Tory MPs have to write to the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs to trigger a leadership challenge.

The Daily Telegraph said Friday that 30 have already done so but the process is shrouded in secrecy.

Police action

London police have said they have been in touch with the Cabinet Office about the garden party claims but said Thursday their next step depends on what Gray says.

It has been criticised for declaring it would not retrospectively investigate potential breaches of coronavirus restrictions.

Should it launch a criminal probe, the pressure on Johnson would mount.

In 2007, Tony Blair's last year as prime minister was clouded by a police investigation into a "cash-for-honours" row but no charges were brought.

Johnson limps on

Johnson could survive the immediate fall-out from Gray's report but the damage could compound a series of other scandals that have dented his political capital.

His party has been fined for failing to declare who was paying for costly renovations to his Downing Street flat, and accused of rewarding wealthy donors with seats in the unelected upper chamber House of Lords.

Johnson's unsuccessful attempt to change parliament's disciplinary rules after a colleague was found to have broken lobbying rules led to a by-election defeat in a safe seat last month.

Tory grassroot members are unhappy too about looming tax rises and high inflation, as the UK seeks to recover from pandemic spending.

The next general election is not due until May 2024 at the latest but voters could still deliver their verdict on him in local polls in May. A drubbing would see the Tory knives sharpened.

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