Timing is everything in politics. Partygate showed the usually sure-footed Boris at his most careless and inept, dwarfing even his run-in with the Commissioner for Standards that cost him North Shropshire last month and (one suspects) helped lose him Bury South on Wednesday. But the British electorate can be very forgiving. When it elected Boris it did not mind too much about his tendency to get things wrong on points of detail, seeing him instead as the man who saw what had to be done, was honest about it and got on with the important part of the job.
At the time the scandal broke about the ‘drinks cabinet’ at No. 10, Boris could have taken advantage of this. Imagine if he had quickly admitted to having taken his finger off the pulse and let down the voters. Suppose further that he had asked their pardon, said it would never happen again, and added that of course it was only fair that there should be an amnesty for all lockdown offences in 2020.
Of course the opposition would have crowed and made a great deal of noise, but its style would have been handsomely cramped. Piling onto someone who has profusely apologised makes you look churlish; and if he’s already offered reparation you can’t very well make political capital by demanding he supply it. It’s worth remembering that electors are always more willing to accept that people make mistakes than opposition politicians are prepared to credit. At least when it comes to public opinion, Solomon’s advice in Proverbs remains good: if you are decent to your enemy you will heap burning coals on his head and come in for a reward later.
Will tactics like this work now? Calls for Boris to climb down and announce a lockdown amnesty for the rest of us, and for the reimbursement of all fines levied for illegal mixing in 2020, are certainly growing louder.
One can understand such pressure from those committed to the Johnson damage limitation operation. Unfortunately, Boris has missed the bus. As regards his own prospects, any such move at this stage is likely to be at best irrelevant, and indeed may well make his position worse. This is for a number of reasons.
For one thing, by prevaricating over partygate and what he knew, Boris has already lost something that convinced ordinary people to vote for him: an appearance of overall honesty and competence, and a willingness to admit to his mistakes. An immediate offer to make good the harm done by remitting all fines for lockdown breaches would have been disarming. Many people, after all, had no clear understanding in 2020 of either the details of the regulations or the necessity for their draconian enforcement. But that time has passed. An apology and offer of reparation after you have been being found out and boxed into a corner is different: it will be seen as neither emollient nor for that matter very sincere.
Secondly, even if an amnesty would soothe tempers, by delaying as he has Boris has given up any chance of gaining any credit for it. Instead of a magnanimous gesture from someone prepared to admit to imperfection, it will now be seen as being dragged from an unwilling and slightly dishonest administration by the efforts of a conscientious opposition and others determined to bring it to book.
As well as this, there could be other collateral damage to Boris’s reputation. Despite some justified grumbling about the severity of the 2020 lockdown, overall the premier’s handling of the pandemic has probably worked in his favour. The background perception has been that even if the government has not always been right, it has at least been a great deal more on the ball than Starmer and the opposition, who have either been conspicuously silent or called woodenly for ever more restrictions on ordinary life. An announcement now from Boris that all criminal proceedings for lockdown offences will stop and all fines repaid will be seen as an admission of failure by him in one of the areas where hitherto he has been seen as a success.
What now? Although it seems pretty clear that no amnesty can now do anything to save Boris’s skin, or (one suspects) that of the Conservatives if he remains, the moral case for the government providing one is actually very strong. If those at the centre of government – including, incidentally, senior civil servants who ought to have known better – were enjoying well-lubricated gatherings in a carefully-guarded Whitehall and Downing Street at the same time as the rest of us were being ordered in no uncertain terms to stay away from conviviality of almost any kind, then the state had no business enforcing the law against others in the heavy-handed way that it did.
One thing follows from this debacle, and the Tories cannot afford to forget it. If and when Boris goes, there must be an immediate and spontaneous announcement of an amnesty. This is vital both to show that the party is back on the moral high ground, and that the ancien régime has gone.