An ability to survive narrow scrapes has been one of Boris Johnson’s defining qualities. The pictures of Downing Street’s lockdown social events in the Sue Gray report were so mild as to be almost exculpatory: staid gatherings of half a dozen people around a long table with sandwiches still in their boxes. Gray did not scrutinise the party in the No. 10 flat, saying she felt it inappropriate to do so while police were investigating. The more damaging material came from the emails intercepted, with No. 10 aides joking that they seemed to have ‘got away with’ drinks parties that broke the law.
In the end, they did not get away with it. The Prime Minister remains guilty – most seriously of misleading the House of Commons. He has shown a serious failure, too, in not learning from his mistakes. As so often with Johnson, one can marvel at his ability to avoid career-ending disaster at the same time as wondering how he could have been so foolish as to get himself into such trouble in the first place.
It is no use him or anyone else in government complaining about the triviality of the charges. His government put the lockdown laws on the statute book in the first place, framing them in such a way as to criminalise everyday interactions.
Now the Prime Minister’s allies plead for clemency. It is in human nature, they say, to gather to bid farewell to a departing friend or colleague, to offer friendship and succour. Quite so. Johnson’s allies further argue that, as he raised his glass in a toast, he did so in a work capacity – as evidenced by the presence of his red box. This Jesuitical defence would be more plausible if the government’s laws had not seen ordinary people dragged to court and found guilty of far milder offences. Consider the childminder in Manchester who was fined for delivering a birthday card to a child in her care, or the two women in Derby-shire who were ambushed by the police for the crime of walking through a park with takeaway coffee.
How ironic that in the November 2020 photograph of Boris Johnson raising a toast to the spin doctor he had forced to resign, a copy of The Spectator can be seen resting on the table. This magazine had argued against that month’s lockdown and its needless criminalisation of everyday life. By then, the logic for lockdowns had collapsed. But, thanks in part to a supine opposition, No. 10 pressed ahead anyway. Those leaving drinks took place when all other social gatherings had been banned under pain of huge fines.
Lockdowns involved the passing of the most damaging, illiberal laws in British postwar history. The social and economic cost is still being counted. Johnson is guilty not simply of breaking his own rules, but of failing to assess if those rules even worked. The sheer scale of the law demanded a rigorous assessment of the policies behind it, but no serious cost-benefit analysis was conducted. Nor were studies commissioned to ask why infections seemed to have peaked before the previous lockdown. And no one is now asking why, if lockdown was the only means of holding back a Covid wave, Sweden has done so well without ever imposing one.
The Prime Minister is guilty of presiding over a gung-ho culture in which lockdown advocates were never properly challenged. He was bounced into taking deeply damaging decisions. His own instinct to resist lockdown was not enough: he could have assembled advisers to challenge Sage. He could have asked the Treasury for a cost–benefit analysis. He could have made the second lockdown a matter of guidance. Instead he closed society down over and over again, asking his aides to implement laws they themselves regularly flouted.
Johnson has further opened himself to charges of hypocrisy through his confected fury about his former spokeswoman Allegra Stratton, who resigned after being caught on camera making light of the parties that were being held in No. 10. There is no suggestion that she broke any rules. She was poking fun at the absurdity of the law and of being asked to defend such a ridiculous situation.
Her laughter, Johnson declared, had caused national anger – an anger that he shared. He was shocked – shocked! – to find any such behaviour was happening in No. 10. Stratton resigned on principle, the only person in No. 10 to have done so.
It is a damning – and accurate – charge against the Prime Minister that he is no man of principle. Weakness in personal conduct need not necessarily make a bad prime minister – Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill drank to excess for most of the second world war. The important part of leadership is getting the big decisions right. Johnson is often said to be a leader who manages to do just that – and certainly on Ukraine that claim can reasonably be made. But on Covid and lockdowns (and, recently, tax rises) he got some big decisions very wrong. His predicament over partygate is testament to that.
His failure to be guided by his instinctive liberalism has led him to the worst and most avoidable disasters of his premiership. He can still learn from these mistakes. But we are more than halfway through this parliament: he does not have much time left.
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