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Elizabeth Line finally opens, but the Partygate saga rumbles on

Energy, Transport & Infrastructure
Public Affairs

By Siân Jones

Today’s much-anticipated opening of the Elizabeth Line – perhaps better known as Crossrail - should have been a moment for jubilation in Downing Street. After a 40-month delay and an investment of almost £19 billion, it had the potential to be a pivotal moment for the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda, with commuters able to travel from affluent Paddington, to the deprived suburb of Abbey Wood in South East London.   

Taken together with speculation that the government might go against its ideological principles and impose an energy windfall tax to tackle the cost of living crisis, many in Downing Street will have been hoping that this week was a chance to get back on the front foot. Instead, any good news has been overshadowed by yet more ‘Partygate’ revelations and renewed speculation about the Prime Minister’s future.  

After the Metropolitan Police concluded its investigation into the episode, which resulted in a single fixed penalty notice for the Prime Minister, many politics watchers believed that the scandal would fizzle out, with Boris Johnson living, yet again, to fight another day – and another election.  

Now, however, he faces political danger on two fronts – the expected publication of Sue Gray’s report tomorrow, and the release yesterday of new photographs, showing him raising a glass at former aide Lee Cain’s leaving party in Downing Street on 13th November last year. Previously asked in the House of Commons if he had attended a party in Downing Street on that date, the Prime Minister told the House “No", adding, "I'm sure...all the rules were followed".  

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has been touring the broadcast studios today to defend the Prime Minister, saying that Mr Johnson is ‘mortified’ by what has happened. However, the row, which the Prime Minister and his team thought they had successfully quashed some weeks ago, has been re-ignited. Former Scottish Conservative leader, Baroness Davidson, has renewed her call for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Tom Tugendhat, regarded in some quarters as a future leadership contender, has also been critical, saying that, “seriousness in government matters…and I’m afraid this just doesn’t look serious.” Former Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, added, "If there's a deliberate lie, I can't see how anybody, including this Prime Minister, can continue." 

It is not only the Prime Minister who is facing difficult questions, either. The release of the latest set of photos has put the spotlight onto the Metropolitan Police investigation. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has today called for clarity as to why the Met did not fine the Prime Minister for attending last November’s event when he had, according to Khan, been “caught red-handed.”  

The publication of Sue Gray’s report will be followed by a statement to Parliament by the Prime Minister and an appearance at the 1922 Committee, where he is bound, yet again, to face more tough questioning as to whether he deliberately lied to Parliament.  

The drawn-out nature of the Partygate investigation has so far served Boris Johnson well, helping to kill the scandal’s momentum and allowing it gradually to drop out of the headlines. A Privileges Committee investigation is also on the cards, potentially meaning more weeks of delay in reaching a conclusion as to whether the Prime Minister intentionally misled the House.   

The Prime Minister will be hoping that the public – and, more importantly, the Conservative MPs with the power to determine his immediate future – will be suffering from a healthy dose of “Partygate fatigue”, and that interest in the scandal is petering out as the Government attempts to pivot to a more positive agenda. However, with the BBC set to broadcast a Panorama programme on the Partygate saga this evening, featuring damaging eyewitness accounts from disillusioned Downing Street staff, it’s clear that the Prime Minister is not out of the woods yet.