An ability to survive narrow scrapes has been one of Boris Johnson’s defining qualities. The pictures of Downing Street’s lockdown social events included in the Sue Gray report were so dull as to be almost exculpatory: staid gatherings of half a dozen people around a long table with sandwiches still in their boxes, apple juice poured into a whisky glass. Far worse happened in No. 10 but Gray did not publish those photos or look into (for example) the ‘Abba’ party in the No. 10 flat, saying she felt it inappropriate to do so while police were investigating. Luckily for Johnson.
The more damaging material came from the emails intercepted, with No. 10 staff being clear that they knew they were breaking the rules they had collectively designed and enforced on the country. The emails show No. 10 staff asked to hide wine bottles from the cameras – then joked that they seemed to have ‘got away with’ drinks parties that broke the law.
But in the end, they did not get away with it. The Prime Minister remains guilty – most explicitly of misleading the House of Commons when he denied that any parties took place. He has shown a serious failure, too, in not learning from his mistakes. 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. Let us consider his defence for the leaving party:
“I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service – which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership. Particularly important when people need to feel that their contributions had been appreciated and to keep morale as high as possible.
Does he realise, even now, that he made it illegal for anyone to do this during lockdown? Where, in his lockdown rules, was the exemption for the ‘essential duties of leadership?’ Where was the clause allowing those outside the ruling elite to have a regular ‘wine-time Friday?’ Does he realise that he personally used the powers of his office to send the police after anyone else who would have attended a gathering to salute a departing colleague? Or, for that matter, to console a friend, visit a dying relative or even attend a funeral in numbers greater than stipulated by the staff of No. 10.
The Prime Minister said it was ‘right’ to salute former colleagues in a leaving party. He’s quite correct in that it is a decent, humane thing to do. But consider the childminder in Manchester who was fined for delivering a birthday card to a child in her care: was it ‘right’ for her to do so? Of course. Did this help her, when police intercepted her to enforce the Prime Minister’s rules and took her to court? Not one bit. His needless, draconian lockdown rules were enforced by police upon millions of people, with tens of thousands taken to court. No one – not the pensioner in his allotment, not the mother celebrating her child’s birthday with two friends – had the chance to argue before the magistrates that what they were doing was ‘right’.
When police went after two women in Derbyshire for the crime of walking through a park with takeaway coffee, one might also ask: was it ‘right’ for them to seek each other’s company and avail themselves of the basic liberty of a free country? Of course. Did Johnson’s laws prohibit this? Unforgivably: yes. And this is the point.
So to hear him now talk about what was ‘right’ and ‘decent’ is hard to swallow. This magazine argued for him to decriminalise lockdown rules, to offer guidance and leave people to judge what is ‘right’ – as was being done with much success in Sweden and several states of America. But Johnson refused to do so, preferring to turn Britain into a police state. While having every intention of flouting the laws when he considered it opportune to do so.
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 has not been ‘vindicated’ as he claims. No one who spent months trying to abide by his lockdown laws is under any doubt of what went on. He is guilty of presiding over a gung-ho culture in which lockdown advocates were never properly challenged. He allowed himself to be bounced into taking deeply damaging decisions. His own instinct to resist lockdown was not enough: he could have assembled ‘red-team’ advisers to challenge Sage. He could have asked the Treasury for a cost-benefit analysis of lockdown. He could have made the second lockdown a matter of guidance, not of law. 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 said 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.