Boris Johnson normally avoids grovelling apologies – but in 2022 another annus horribilis has only just begun
Boris Johnson has spent most of his political career brazening it out and avoiding mea culpa moments, even at the bumpiest of times.
So for the prime minister to begin the year offering a “humble and sincere” apology to his adviser on ministerial interests over his behaviour around the Downing Street flat refurbishment is arresting.
The uncharacteristic and grovelling apology nods to the effort Mr Johnson has had to put into avoiding the scandal over funding of his renovations blowing up even further at the beginning of this year.
It was less than a month ago that the Conservative Party was fined nearly £18,000 for breaching electoral law over the refurbishment of the flat – the last thing Mr Johnson needed to kick off 2022 was Lord Geidt quitting over it too.
One potential blow-up avoided, the PM is nevertheless far from turning the page on his horrendous end of 2021.
The hit to his authority and leadership sparked by his mishandling of the investigation into former Conservative MP Owen Paterson’s lobbying and the scandal of No 10 Christmas parties has not gone away. Problems have been put on ice rather than resolved.
Where he has begun to claw back some credibility with his MPs is over his decision not to impose further COVID restrictions in England over the Christmas period.
Holding his nerve – some would say he had little choice faced with a restive party and cabinet – won him praise from colleagues in the chamber this week.
The unpredictable, angry and rebellious mood on the benches that punctuated the end of last term has been replaced by studied scrutiny, and in the Commons this week the PM looked more poised than he has for weeks.
Read: 2021 – a year of notable political scandals
If he can ride the wave of Omicron in the coming few weeks (something the PM himself says will be “very challenging”) without introducing more restrictions, Mr Johnson will no doubt feel emboldened and surely want to claim credit for leadership from a parliamentary party distinctly unimpressed with him and his No 10 operation of late.
But, with at least 24 hospital trusts now declaring a critical incident over Omicron strains, it is going to be a bumpy ride which could see the PM having to impose measures once more, however politically difficult that may be.
He is still faced with the outcome of the independent investigation into the No 10 Christmas parties during COVID lockdowns of 2020, which could be another hammer blow for a prime minister whose reputation with the public has been seriously – perhaps irreparably – damaged.
The government – something ministers are acutely, painfully, aware of – is also facing a cost of living crisis on the back of rising fuel bills and inflation.
There was a reason that all opposition politicians used the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year to quiz Mr Johnson on the cost of living – they expect this to be the issue at the top of the public’s agenda, and the government’s most pressing problem, in the coming months.
There is no doubt that Mr Johnson has come back in 2022 with a fresh haircut and an air of determination about turning his fortunes around. But what his MPs are watching now isn’t just how he performs, but the polls.
On current polling, up to 100 MPs who won seats helped along by Mr Johnson’s patronage in 2019 are heading for defeat in the next general election.
If they conclude this prime minister cannot turn around their fortunes – the May local elections will be a litmus test – in the coming months, they may decide the party needs to change course.
That is something openly discussed between those MPs in those marginal seats. One of them told me this week they thought there was a one in three chance that Mr Johnson would face a leadership challenge this year.
So while the PM will be hugely relieved to turn the page on 2021 and begin 2022 holding on to Lord Geidt, another annus horribilis has only just begun.