Boris Johnson: Wagons circle around PM but his government is paralysed by ‘partygate’ scandal
Priti Patel was busy trying to get on with the day job as home secretary on Thursday, joining Sky News at a pharmacy in central London to promote the anniversary of a scheme she set up a year ago to try to help victims of domestic violence.
“Ask ANI” is about giving victims a place where they can discreetly signal their need for help from their local pharmacy.
Ms Patel has told Sky News some of her friends have experienced domestic abuse and that is what spurs her on when it comes to trying to tackle the problem of violence towards women and girls in our society – although she acknowledges there is so much still to do.
But trying to promote initiatives and talk about policy is difficult for a Conservative administration paralysed by the Downing Street party scandal, as MPs ask themselves whether the prime minister can survive this current crisis.
Five Tory MPs, including the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, have publicly called on Boris Johnson to resign.
And many more are waiting on the conclusion of the Sue Gray independent investigation into alleged rule-breaking events held in Number 10 and across Whitehall during the COVID lockdowns of 2020.
For Ms Patel, this is particularly awkward. As home secretary she is the cabinet minister in charge of law and order and was the natural voice of tough enforcement of COVID regulations.
In May 2020, just two days after the prime minister hosted a drinks event in the garden of Downing Street with around 40 staff in attendance, the home secretary admonished the “reckless minority” that broke mandatory measures at one of the then regular Downing Street news conferences.
In September 2020, when the “rule of six” was introduced, Ms Patel told Sky News she’d call the police if neighbours were hosting a party that broke coronavirus restrictions, saying this was all about taking “personal responsibility”.
But, on Thursday, she seemed far more lenient when it came to her close political ally Mr Johnson over “partygate”.
Patel offers full backing to PM
She offered the prime minister her full backing and took a swipe at Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who on Wednesday night offered more qualified support in backing Mr Johnson’s request for patience while Ms Gray carries out her inquiry.
When I asked Ms Patel if she was minded to reserve judgement ahead of that report, as Mr Sunak had appeared to do, the home secretary replied: “No! On the contrary.
“I have publicly supported the prime minister and actually you’re speaking to the home secretary who spends all my time day in, day out supporting the prime minister, his agenda of delivering on the people’s priorities and the work that we do.”
Ms Patel, a long-standing friend of the prime minister, said Mr Johnson had offered a “fulsome apology” and had spoken about taking “personal responsibility”.
And when I pressed her on whether she accepted the Downing Street gathering of 40 people, with food and drink, really was a “work event” – as the prime minister said he believed it was – she told me she “didn’t want to pre-empt any more of this other than say I want to let the investigation run its course”.
The home secretary also said she didn’t think the Metropolitan Police’s failure to launch a retrospective investigation would undermine the public’s confidence in the police.
‘Crisis just about survivable for PM’
The wagons have circled around the prime minister, with cabinet ministers betting that Ms Gray’s verdict will give Mr Johnson enough wriggle room to avoid his complete political destruction.
Allies think this crisis is just about survivable.
But the stench of the scandal is polluting the wider Conservative Party, which is perhaps why some cabinet ministers – such as Mr Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay – are offering more qualified support in publicly backing the prime minister’s request for patience while the government awaits the findings of Ms Gray’s report.
In shoring up the prime minister, Mr Johnson’s allies look acutely out of touch with the public mood.
A YouGov poll released on Wednesday night revealed the real damage being done over the party scandal, with support for the Conservative Party falling to its lowest level since 2013.
Johnson ‘busted flush’ – top figure in Starmer team
A senior figure in Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s office told me this week that, whether the Tories decide to oust Mr Johnson or not, he’s a busted flush.
And rivals for the leadership will be watching and waiting. Mr Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are expected to run if Mr Johnson doesn’t survive.
And, as for the home secretary, Ms Patel didn’t like being asked about her own ambitions and described it as an “irrelevant and inappropriate” question – but neither did she emphatically rule out a tilt at the top job.
For now, Ms Patel is trying to shore up her embattled prime minister and press on with policy in her department as the Home Office prepares to publish a new domestic abuse strategy this year.
The “Ask for ANI” scheme, a year old on Friday, is a start, allowing those at risk of domestic abuse to discreetly signal their need for help at a local pharmacy.
The scheme has provided support to at least 100 victims across the UK.
The home secretary says she is personally invested in tackling violence against women, but she also acknowledges prosecution rates are “appallingly low” and “a terrible reflection that the system is not working”.
Rape cases rose 1.5% to 555,696 in the year to April 2021, as prosecution rates fell 26% to the lowest on record, at 1,109.
And, as for domestic abuses cases – including sexual assaults – the police inspectorate found three-quarters of all cases were closed without the suspect being charged.
Ms Patel said she’s being “radical” in her approach. But with such dire prosecution rates, the Home Office is being pressed by campaigners and experts to introduce measures to help improve the experience of women in the criminal justice system.
One measure being called for is to make tackling violence against women and girls a priority across all police forces, something the home secretary stressed is now happening.
“We now have a lead chief constable, a lead figure in policing, working across all police forces to have consistency around violence against women and girls,” she said.
“We are done with the inconsistencies” and “cannot have” disparities when it comes to service provision, the home secretary added.
Ms Patel also didn’t rule out bringing back specialist units in every police force to tackle VAWG issues, or making sexual harassment a specific crime.
“There is a lot more we need to do in this space,” she said.
In March, it will be the anniversary of Sarah Everard’s devastating murder.
A tragedy that ignited a touchpaper for women and girls up and down the land, and now they want more than just rhetoric, they want to see genuine change.
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