On the streets of Swindon in southern England this week, one phrase could be heard repeatedly: “It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”
A sense of outrage has swept the country after revelations about Downing Street parties held during coronavirus lockdown, even as Britons were asked to follow rules that prohibited large social gatherings.
So far only a handful of Conservative MPs have publicly called for Boris Johnson’s resignation since he admitted attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 during England’s first lockdown.
But this weekend represents a crunch moment for the prime minister as Tory MPs return to their constituencies to gauge the national mood following his partial apology — Johnson said at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday that he thought the May 2020 gathering was a “work event”.
Many Conservatives have been willing to wait for an imminent report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, into the parties and allegations of widespread Covid rule breaking, but MPs are braced for a big backlash from the public and Tory activists.
In Swindon, Conservative councillor Bazil Solomon said the latest news about two parties in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021 was “horrible”.
Conservative councillor Bazil Solomon: “[Boris Johnson] is going to be replaced . . . at the end of the day you can only apologise so much” © Sam Frost
“When the [Gray] report becomes available on what took place, those who significantly broke the Covid-19 rules . . . should reconsider their jobs,” he added.
“[Johnson] is going to be replaced . . . at the end of the day you can only apologise so much.”
Johnson has proved his political mettle over the years by winning the London mayoralty in 2008, the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the 2019 general election.
But amid the “partygate” scandal he looks like he is turning into an electoral liability, which is making many Tory MPs and activists nervous ahead of local elections in England on May 5.
An opinion poll this week by Savanta ComRes found that two-thirds of people thought the prime minister should resign, including 42 per cent of those who voted Conservative at the 2019 election.
On Thursday, the executive members of Sutton Coldfield Tory association in the West Midlands unanimously voted that they had no confidence in Johnson.
Simon Ward, Conservative leader of Sutton Coldfield town council, said the government had asked people to make “massive sacrifices” during the pandemic for two years. “We have the right to expect everybody in government . . . to follow the same rules,” he added.
Grassroots Conservatives, an influential group which previously backed Johnson, has emailed supporters asking if they think the prime minister should resign.
A note stuck to the window of Swindon South MP Robert Buckland’s constituency office sums up the town’s anger © Sam Frost
Swindon, where main employers include the Nationwide building society, was once under the grip of the Labour party, both at a local and national level.
In recent years, however, the Tories have cemented control of both Westminster constituencies — Swindon North and Swindon South, the latter held by former cabinet minister Robert Buckland — as well as the local authority, where last year they increased their majority to 15 seats.
But local Tories are increasingly worried about the local elections in May and whether they will lose seats because of partygate.
David Renard, Conservative leader of Swindon council, said it was a “fact” the national situation was a concern to the public.
“But it’s early days to see what the impact will be when local elections are four months away,” he added. “I hope when people vote in these elections they will be thinking about what the party has done for them locally.”
However, Julia Bishop, a longstanding Conservative councillor in Swindon, said local elections were often influenced by national events.
She cited the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands war, when 15 Tories were elected as councillors in Swindon amid the popularity of the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bishop said she thought Johnson had “probably gone too far this time” by breaking Covid rules and then making “silly excuses” when caught out.
“He seems a stranger to the truth at times,” she added. “At [prime minister’s questions] . . . people were laughing at the ludicrousness of his excuses.”
Part of Bishop’s anger is because her brother died in 2020 and the family could only hold a restricted funeral owing to Covid rules. “Millions of people have similar stories,” she said.
A straw poll by the local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, this week found strong public disapproval of Johnson’s behaviour: 79 per cent of people wanted him to resign.
Rebecca Hollinshead, working the door at the Brass Monkey cocktail bar in Swindon’s old town, said she had backed Johnson over Brexit but now thought he was “making a fool of Britain”.
Shop assistant Colleen Mundy: “People are angry because they lost loved ones and he [Johnson] was in the garden drinking with a load of people” © Sam Frost
It was possible to find people in Swindon who thought partygate was a storm in a teacup. Rachel Irving, a pensioner, said a lot of people had ignored lockdown rules, adding: “I would always vote Tory anyway.”
But she appeared to be in a small minority. In the Savoy pub in central Swindon, there was near universal disapproval of the prime minister.
Steve McNally, a carpenter, said. “I would say 9 out of 10 people are pissed off with him right now.”
Colleen Mundy, a shop assistant, said Johnson needed a “kick up the backside” for writing the Covid rules and then ignoring them. “People are angry because they lost loved ones and he was in the garden drinking with a big load of people,” she added.
Additional reporting by Miles Ellingham in London