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Patrick O'Flynn

Boris has his enemies to thank for surviving partygate

Boris has his enemies to thank for surviving partygate
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The surest way to put people off an opinion they might otherwise agree with is to get somebody they actively despise to articulate it. Yet this is what the anti-Boris Johnson political class proposes to do repeatedly in the House of Commons on Sue Gray Day, perhaps as early as tomorrow.

One does not have to be equipped with the clairvoyant powers of a Gypsy Rose Lee to envisage the moralistic huffing and puffing from Keir Starmer or the death stares and withering, shivering condemnation of Theresa May that will occur as they pound away at the lockdown partying antics of Boris Johnson and his team.

Leaked photographs of Johnson proposing a toast at impromptu leaving drinks held for Lee Cain during lockdown certainly seem to depict enjoyment being had, verging on outright partying. Though the PM’s red box full of official papers is lying on a chair in the background like some kind of desultory alibi, it is the array of empty drinks bottles on a table in the foreground that catch the eye, along with the great blond bon-viveur himself raising his glass to his departing spin doctor.

A picture, we are always told, is worth a thousand words and this one won’t look good in the eyes of the electorate. But rather than give people the space to come to their own conclusions about Johnson’s lackadaisical approach to lockdown rules, his opponents within the Tory party and without it will queue up to deliver more pompous condemnatory soundbites for the TV news.

And that’s the moment the PM will get off the hook again. Because who among the pro-Brexit, anti-leftist hoards who might vote Tory at the next election is going to be put off doing so – or be led to think worse of Johnson – by the sights and sounds of Starmer in holier-than-thou mode? Seldom will so many vowels have been strangled to so little effect. And while Johnson may be – is – deeply personally flawed, at least he delivered on the democratic imperative by getting the UK out of the EU, unlike May whose farcical dithering brought the political process into disrepute and close to collapse.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government apart from all the others. Voters are about to be reminded that Johnson is the worst conceivable premier apart from all the alternatives.

Suppose, for instance, that Starmer had been PM when Covid struck early in 2020. Yes, he might have locked down quicker, longer and harder. But that would have inflicted yet more damage to the UK economy and public finances, possibly for no net health benefit whatever. And he would have been in the middle of enacting his plan to hold a second EU referendum, presumably in spring 2020, which would then have had to have been postponed, further inflaming the crisis of legitimacy which had engulfed the political system.

And what if Jeremy Corbyn had somehow made it into 10 Downing Street? Could we even be sure whose side the UK would be on in the Ukraine crisis? Or what about Jeremy Hunt, who has been accused of making admiring homilies about China’s ruthless lockdowns, as well as issuing improbable claims that he could have avoided locking down at all? Remember that he too was proposing putting us through a second Brexit referendum on the terms of departure.

None of these figures is nearly as irresistible to the British public as they give the appearance of thinking they are. For Starmer, in particular, to think that partygate merits the forced removal of the PM over the heads of the voters is risible and gives the impression that he does not believe he can become the first Labour politician ever to beat him in an election.

With the beergate saga still hanging over him, there is perhaps a faint chance that he might dial down on the rhetoric this time round. Yet everything we have recently learned about his own preposterous self-image as a man of faultless integrity points in the opposite direction. With enemies like these, Boris Johnson can keep getting away without having many true friends.

Written byPatrick O'Flynn

Patrick O’Flynn is a former MEP and political editor of the Daily Express

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