According to reports – and when have they ever been anything but a gross underestimation of the actual horror? – Boris Johnson didn’t just have a drink at one or two parties around Downing Street during lockdowns. They were actually his idea, on at least one occasion, and he was dishing the drinks out.
The landlord of the Slug and Suitcase private members bar on Whitehall was none other than the PM, and he was more than happy to oblige you. Ice and a slice with your gin? Prosecco cool enough for you? We’re out of Peroni but there’s still some Fosters if you want. No nuts, but a selection of cheeses, sir.
Although Johnson doesn’t go down the pub much, and is apparently so tight he never buys a round with his own money, he is the ideal host for an unofficial drinks party for hard-working officials. They could have done with Johnson coming round to a few Covid wards to offer refreshments to poor nurses. It’s not just civil servants who needed to let their hair down, you know, as that wise old sage Michael Fabricant reminded us. Though if he ever let his hair down it might cause a land slip.
I say “parties”, but the hard-drinking Tories always say “ten minutes with a birthday cake isn’t my idea of party”. Nor mine, so maybe we should call them by their boring proper name of “unlawful gatherings”, in contravention of the public health regulations prevailing at the time. The language used by the Metropolitan Police to define the sanction for these criminal offences. Offenses committed at a time when there were no vaccines, treatments, nor readily available Covid tests, and the nature of the coronavirus was poorly understood.
What we did know is that it was relatively easily transmitted by people in close proximity in an indoor setting, singing or talking, and if someone was asymptomatic and had a sufficiently high viral load, they could unwittingly spread it to a number of people, according to the famous “R” number. The rules, in other words, weren’t in place as some sort of Cromwellian gesture, but because they would slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus. Some 150,000 excess deaths prove that last point.
Remember the slogan: “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”. During that time, Downing Street was gaining notoriety as a bit of a Covid hot spot, with ministers and advisers periodically disappearing because they’d caught a dose. They even tried to blame Michel Barnier, the victor of Brexit, for some fiendish plot to bring it into the nerve center of the British government. Dominic Cummings, for one, sequestered himself as far as away as possible, not entirely according to the rules.
The prime minister ended up in intensive care. And he had to be stopped by Cummings from popping off for his weekly audience with Her Majesty because – as Cummings reminded him – he might be asymptomatically infectious and about to take the life of the sovereign. For that, a fixed penalty notice would seem an inadequate punishment. No doubt a subsequent sorrowful, “it was not my intention to end the life of Elizabeth II prematurely”, from Johnson would have been looked upon sympathetically by Tory MPs, but not the rest of us, or indeed her family of her.
The whole point about partygate is the “gate” – the cover up. As the old saying goes, it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the attempt to conceal it, lie about it, and generally distract public attention away from it. But eventually it all catches up with you. No doubt the prime minister will shortly plead that “partygate” has taken too much police and official time, been too much of a diversion, and the moment has come to “move on”. It sounds good but is meaningless. Try telling British Gas that no, you’re not going to pay that huge bill and they should “move on”.
In order to “move on” he’ll happily admit inadvertently breaking the law. For Boris Johnson that is the same as saying he didn’t break the law – and accidentally misleading parliament – which to him is not misleading it at all because he was fed dud information and he didn’t think the innocuous events he attended were unlawful gatherings, let alone the kind of hog-whimperingly drunken Bullingdon-style orgies he’d recognize as a “party.”
Had David Cameron been there doing his party trick with a pig’s head then yes, maybe that could be deemed sufficiently festive, but summery drinks and snacks with Carrie and the civil servants? Not so much. So he’ll treat it as if it were nothing and show no genuine remorse, behind the usual insincerely abject non-apology about sharing the families’ pain and distress, which he’s doesn’t.
Johnson is still arrogant enough to think people will believe him, but he doesn’t care if they don’t. He also knows that the only people who can do anything about misleading parliament are his cabinet and his backbenchers, and they’re too craven and clueless to try anything on. His nearest rivals of him have self-immolated.
So, as the distinguished historian Peter Hennessy says, it’s all terrible. The better news is that the longer the Tories keep Johnson where he is, the more chance the Conservaves will lose power at the next general election, and shortly in local councils across the land. From by-elections and polls it suggests they will be freshly humiliated especially in London, the Home Counties, the Red Wall, Scotland and Wales. He is a huge electoral liability for the Tories, and Professor Sir John Curtice thinks it is unlikely to ever fully recover. That means Johnson is the greatest electoral asset that Labor and the opposition parties possess. So they should cheer up.
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A wonderful “word cloud” has been produced by the pollsters at JL Partners illustrating the terms that the public most associate with Boris Johnson. “Liar” sits like a big fat defiant blond-haired toad in the middle, but you also notice “buffoon”, “clown”, “idiot”, “untrustworthy”, as well, to be fair, as “Ukraine”, ” Brexit” and “person”. It’s not such a great public image.
Of 2,000 responses gathered, 72 per cent were negative, and 16 per cent positive. I suppose the party and its leader can build on that 16 per cent, but maybe not. The more Johnson gets away with stuff, the more inclined he is to push his luck from him. His misfortune about him is that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and the public is more aware of his flaws about him than he thinks they are. He has been taking the voters for fools for a long time, and they’ve “priced in” a certain amount of roguish behaviour. But they only do so if he delivers the results they want, and he’s not doing that at the moment.
His problem is that he’ll try to convince them that he is, with harebrained schemes such as the Rwanda plan, and pledges about leveling up and tax cuts. Yet they aren’t going to believe him. Even if the members of the House of Commons don’t think he’s a liar – and they should really be able to spot one – the public have long since come to that conclusion.
A politician whose promises are worthless isn’t much use to any party.