The latest ‘Partygate’ revelations may prove too much even for the great escapologist Boris Johnson
Published by The Washington Post (11 January, 2022)
The House of Commons on Tuesday was aroar with ranting and catcalling and demands that the prime minister resign, following revelations of yet another Downing Street party flouting the very pandemic rules imposed by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.
But the chamber fell silent as Afzal Khan, a Labour member of Parliament, spoke about sitting in a car outside a hospital as his mother died, wanting to be as close as possible. “Even burdened with our grief, my family obeyed the rules. Just three days after the Downing Street party we marked a solemn Eid, the first without my lovely mum.”
The party Khan was referring to occurred on May 20, 2020. Hints about the affair surfaced last week from Dominic Cummings, architect of the Brexit campaign, who fell out with Johnson once in power, and whose own breach of lockdown rules caused a huge fuss early in the pandemic.
Inevitably, the email invitation leaked on Monday. It revealed that Johnson’s principal private secretary had invited at least 100 guests to a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden since “we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather.”
Note use of the word “we.” Johnson has previously denied any wrongdoing to Parliament. Yet news reports indicate that both he and his wife, Carrie, joined up to 40 staff at the party — held less than one hour after a cabinet minister reminded the public about rules stating they could meet only one other person outside their household in an outdoor environment.
Johnson has long been known as the great escapologist, a Houdini-like figure who can wriggle free from tight situations that would finish off most people. Former prime minister David Cameron once likened Johnson to a “greased piglet” for his ability “to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.” But this episode might just prove too much even for Johnson’s ingenuity.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s image as a man of the people, a joker who cheerfully breaks rules that bind others while hiding behind Latin quips and that unruly mop of blond hair, has taken him a long way. It enabled him as prime minister to trounce all internal and external foes, flip-flop around the political spectrum, ditch the small-state conservatism held sacrosanct for his party since the days of Margaret Thatcher, survive a bungled pandemic response and shake off scandals over lucrative government contracts for cronies.
Given his cavalier approach to life, it is perhaps fitting that this prime minister of no fixed ideology is threatened not by some furious row over policy but by revelations over a series of parties.
The “Partygate” stories began dribbling out at the end of November, with reports of gatherings held the previous year stirring public fury and a Tory poll slump. The government aimed to shift the news agenda back to its priorities in the new year, but that plan is in tatters.
As fresh details emerged on Tuesday, social media exploded as people told tales of divided families and relatives dying alone while they obeyed the government rules. Little wonder that Tory backbenchers are in despair — although such duplicitous behavior was entirely predictable by anyone even slightly familiar with Johnson’s past.
His poll ratings have crashed. The things that made Johnson seem appealingly different to his fans — from his disheveled appearance through to his gung-ho refusal to play by usual rules — suddenly look like chronic defects. Meanwhile, stolid Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions slowly dragging the Labour Party back to the center ground after its lurch to the hard left, offers a sharp contrast.
The impact of this saga could be seen on Tuesday, when the government answered emergency questions in the House of Commons. Johnson, like most of his MPs, did not dare turn up. He left the difficult task of batting away the barrage of angry questions to one of his ministers, Michael Ellis,, who hid behind the explanation that an official inquiry was underway.
The MPs who spoke about their own grief or anguish in the pandemic were reflecting a situation faced by many more citizens. Yet it seems those setting the rules were contemptuously drinking and cavorting in Downing Street while the rest of the population obeyed their lockdown — and this could lead potentially to a police probe.
“It is clear that in this country the same rules apply to everyone,” Ellis said at one point. Yet that is not at all clear in this case. As a result, the future of the politician whose flouting of the rules took him to the pinnacle of British politics suddenly seems clouded by his own arrogance.