When Boris Johnson addressed MPs an hour after the release of Sue Gray’s redacted report, he will have hoped his apology would travel far beyond the Commons chamber and reached places like Tonge Fold, on the outskirts of Bolton.
But the immediate reaction suggests the prime minister might be in trouble. “It’s just extremely disappointing and very frustrating. There’s no other words for it,” said Adele Warren, a Conservative councillor, after watching Johnson’s Commons statement with some of her party colleagues.
“I’m a Conservative because I have Conservative values,” she said. “However, that doesn’t mean that I will blindly endorse acts that I think aren’t honourable, and I don’t think these actions have been honourable.”
Warren, a cabinet member responsible for regeneration on Bolton council, said she now believed Johnson should resign. His premiership risked damaging the Conservatives in the upcoming local elections, she added. “I do think it has the potential to be extremely damaging for the local elections.
“It’s really sad because Brexit is finally sorted, no matter how you felt about it; the vaccination rollout was brilliant; the way the economy didn’t tank … [but] unfortunately I don’t think you can have a mandate built on trust and respect when there’s a report like that.”
Tonge Fold is a white working-class community in the constituency of Bolton North East, a former Labour stronghold won by the Conservatives in the 2019 election. It has the thinnest majority of all the red wall seats won by the Conservatives – just 378 votes – and its MP, Mark Logan, has been publicly critical of the prime minister over the “partygate” saga.
So febrile was the atmosphere in Westminster last week that Logan used a live interview with Sky News to dispel rumours that he was preparing to defect to Labour. Days earlier he had told the television cameras: “The PM has a lot of convincing to do because I and my constituents are not convinced at the moment.”
Around the corner from Logan’s constituency office, Angelika Searle was digesting the Gray report before the teatime rush at her Bavarian bakery, Pretzel & Spelt.
“You just can’t have different rules in Downing Street. It’s appalling,” she said. “You see Queen Elizabeth doing the right thing, following the rules, sitting alone, and it seems that none of these rules were applicable to the government itself.”
Tommy Maloney, 30, said he was “fuming” to learn that government figures were attending lockdown-busting parties at a time when he could not visit his vulnerable mother or grandmother or properly celebrate birthdays and Christmas. “My gran is 84 and I wasn’t allowed to see her for her birthday and then we see the people in charge were on the piss? It’s a joke.”
His friend Chris James, 31, said he had not been able to see his seven-year-old daughter for months due to the restrictions on households mixing.
Boltonians have lived with some form of restrictions for most of the last 22 months, due to the enduringly high transmission rates in the town. “We’ve been locked down for nearly two years, we’ve gone through our savings, and the puppeteers can just do what they want,” James said.
The mood was not unanimously bleak for Johnson, however. One shopkeeper, who refused to give her name in case her customers read the Guardian, said it was “a disgrace” that the prime minister’s critics were “sticking the knife in” and insisted he had done a good job handling the pandemic. “Leave him a-bloody-lone, for Christ’s sake,” she said.
At AllBreeds pet shop, owner Denise Williams said she was not angry about partygate because “deep down I don’t think we should’ve had those rules for everybody anyway”.
As the controversy rumbles on, with an ongoing police investigation and the full details of the Gray report yet to be revealed, it will be the views of party members in seats like Bolton North East that will worry Johnson the most.
Warren, the Conservative councillor, said Gray’s initial findings called for a “drastic change” to the culture – and the occupants – of No 10: “The police investigation is right, but the way it’s been handled isn’t fair. There needs to be repercussions from it. People want answers.”