Ancient and modern

Boris wouldn’t be the first to be brought down by a party

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

Whatever the result of Sue Gray’s report on ‘gatherings’ in Downing Street, there is a political lesson to be learned: any excuse will do, even a party, when people are out to get you, as the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56–c.AD 120) well knew.

AD 69: the emperor Vitellius was lying seriously ill when he noticed a mansion with lights ablaze throughout the night. He was told that a ‘lavish, licentious’ party wasbeing held in honour of Junius Blaesus.

Critics denounced it and Vitellius angrily agreed (Tacitus commented: ‘There are people on the lookout for signs of the emperor’s displeasure’). Lucius Vitellius, the emperor’s brother, who loathed Blaesus, now saw his chance to destroy him. He consulted colleagues and agreed to persuade Vitellius to take action.

So Lucius burst into Vitellius’s rooms, clutching Vitellius’s young son, and sketched a picture of an enemy (Blaesus), of powerful family line (Marc Antony’s), working on allies to foment a coup, while partying and watching his emperor suffering. Vitellius agreed, decided he should be poisoned, and ‘feasted his eyes on his enemy’s deathbed’. Job done! Blaesus, Tacitus comments, was no threat to anyone, with no ambition to be emperor, ‘but he could not escape the danger of being thought worthy of it’.

At least 15 ‘gatherings’ have so far been identified for Ms Gray to examine. She may or may not clarify the obvious distinction between a party and a drink with colleagues after work. But just as any excuse would do to destroy Blaesus, so any excuse will do to destroy the Prime Minister; and since the media ‘are on the lookout for the electorate’s displeasure’ — and certainly finding it — they are as happy as Lucius was to ramp it up as far asit will go. So collecting together all the examples, the media have ensured the PM ‘could not avoid the danger of being thought responsible for all of them’. And look! Mrs Johnson hugged a friend! Job done!

In 180 days of restrictions, the PM attended three of these ‘gatherings’, four if Zoom is counted. It is a rich irony that a Prime Minister, accused of far more serious failings, could be sacked for this.

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