The emperor’s new suit has ceased to hide Boris Johnson’s vices. The British prime minister has committed the cardinal sin of politics: suggesting that the rules do not apply to him or his circle. The chain of scandals of the partygate (the alleged parties organized in Downing Street during the confinements of Christmas last year) already splashes him personally, after Sunday afternoon The Guardian will publish a photo from May 2020, in full confinement, in which he appears with his advisers, his wife and their newborn son enjoying wine and cheese in the gardens of the official residence. The newspaper reported on Tuesday that the investigation into the prohibited meetings carried out by the Cabinet Office – the department that acts as a bridge between the prime minister’s office and the rest of the ministries – could be extended to this image starring him.
For now, the prime minister has bought time by delivering in advance the most anticipated gift by many: on Tuesday he guaranteed the British that they can stick with their plans for December 25. But he reserves the role of Mr. Scrooge after Christmas Day. The Government has decided to wait before the progress of the omicron variant, but the records that are registered almost daily are noticeable in hospitals, which could force Johnson to convene Parliament in the midst of a holiday break to approve new measures.
Despite its robust majority of 80 deputies, the vote threatens to constitute a new trance for a premier cornered before his own Cabinet – which refuses to toughen the measures – and held hostage by a parliamentary group on the warpath against any new restrictions, as demonstrated last week with the largest mutiny organized during Johnson’s term, when a hundred parliamentarians refused to protect the covid certificates for England.
As if that were not enough, the image spread by The Guardian has increased the sense of chaos that dominates the Number 10. The premier and their environment describe an encounter that had 19 people – among them, Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, with their newborn baby in their arms – without social distance, or computers, not a single document or notebook in sight, like a meeting “to talk about work”.
The official speech maintains that those present were there due to labor obligation, after a press conference. Johnson’s spokesman went further: “It is not against the rules to eat something outside of working hours.” The argument is, to say the least, debatable, since the regulations stipulated then, in May 2020, that only two people could be seen outside and two meters away. But almost the least of it is if they technically broke the law, since the photo shows that they ignored the spirit of measures that had a severe impact on the lives of 68 million people.
The riskiest thing now for Johnson is if the meeting becomes formally investigated, as part of the process ordered by him after the torrent of controversies of the partygate. At the moment, there are three meetings analyzed, two in Downing Street and one in the facilities of the Ministry of Education, but the terms of the investigations establish that they could be extended to any other “relevant allegation”.
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In any case, the damage has already been done. The scandal has reimposed the toxic labels of the past on his party and, most worryingly for his personal brand, it has exploded the chimera of presenting Johnson as a free verse of British politics, an unspeakable leader who was condoned for acts that would do derail the career of leaders with more packaging and experience. Failure to tell the truth in times of a pandemic – and especially deviating from the rules and concealing the transgression – can come at a high price.
The prime minister suffered the first warning last week in elections in the North Shropshire constituency, in which the Conservatives lost one of their safest seats in decades in Westminster. Johnson himself, a former journalist, blamed the media for the defeat, but in the same indictment he implicitly admitted penance: the lie, proven or not, is toxic at the polls.
Compared to the Christmas party allegations called in advance when most of the country was on lockdown, this latest chapter is not even the most damaging. But it’s the last thing a premier in its lowest hours. The proof of his vulnerability is in the leaks themselves, a symptom of his decline in authority rather than the cause.
It is no coincidence that they came to light until 18 months later and it is difficult to imagine that a prime minister with a tight control of Number 10 suffered the embarrassing broadcast of a recording in which his spokesman admitted a celebration in the official residence in full confinement , or the compromising photograph in which he himself appeared with two advisers, without social distance.
He and his leadership style are credited with the culture of permissiveness that encouraged the encounters. If he is not guilty of having organized them – he has always maintained that he was not aware – he can be attributed the fondness for the concealment that has dominated the management of the scandal.
In search of the person who leaked the image
The image of the latest upset for Boris Johnson was apparently captured from a gallery that is only accessible from the Ministry of Finance, which has triggered a hunt in Downing Street to identify the already minted as a “photographer rat” (snappy rat, in English). The hunt comes after those organized in the past to find the “talking rat” who had revealed the second confinement in 2020 and the “talking pig” who criticized Johnson after his disjointed speech to the bosses in November, in which he vindicated the children’s character Peppa Pig.
The logic would invite to point to the department of Rishi Sunak, head of the second most important position in the Government and one of the names that sound the most for the replacement at the head of the Conservative Party. Above all, given the increasingly resounding speculation about a potential assassination -political-, a common practice among the tories when they consider that a leader has become an electoral burden. However, the palace intrigues in Downing Street are more far-reaching.
Allegations of the dramatic lack of control have been circulating even before the departure of Johnson’s former star adviser, the controversial Dominic Cummings, 13 months ago. The now intimate enemy of the prime minister had established a dynamic in which coercion was the standard motto. But the scope of the leaks in these months suggests a scenario without authority or direction.
In both his journalistic and political career, Johnson seemed happy to project an eccentric profile, of non-linear discourses and unpredictable manners even for his closest collaborators. But its uniqueness does not seem to quite fit the mold of Number 10 and what was once mere extravagance turns into clumsiness when there is no counterpoint to set the tone.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.