If any single image epitomised the sacrifices that millions made during the pandemic, it was that of the Queen, masked, black-clad and entirely alone, in a pew at Windsor Castle on 17 April 2021, at Prince Philip’s socially distanced funeral. For those who regard Her Majesty as the exemplar of the public servant, who has done her best for her country for nearly seventy years, it was an almost heartbreakingly poignant representation of loss. Even for republicans, the image of the then-94-year old woman mourning her husband of 73 years was deeply affecting on a human, as well as a symbolic, level.
It was unsurprising that Keir Starmer invoked the distinction between the Queen’s actions that day and Boris Johnson’s parties at a recent Prime Minister’s Questions. ‘The Queen sat alone during her husband’s funeral,' he said. 'Does the PM think he has the moral authority to ask people to stick to the rules?’
Starmer was met with standard-issue bluffing and evasion. Had he known that 10 Downing Street staff had been engaging in a riotous party the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, he would have shifted from his usual drily prosecutorial manner into slack-jawed incredulity.
The details, which were revealed last night by the Daily Telegraph, defy belief. Although the Prime Minister himself was not present (he was at Chequers), what we know is nonetheless devastating for the PM. On Friday 16 April, staff organised what is known in Fleet Street parlance as ‘a boozy shindig’. Junior staffers were sent out to the Co-op on the Strand to buy wine, Shelley Williams-Walker, the PM’s head of operations, played music late into the night; and, in a particularly unfortunate touch, a drunken partygoer managed to break Wilfred Johnson’s swing by sitting on it in the garden.
The ostensible reason for the festivities was as a farewell to James Slack, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, and the PM's photographer, but whatever the pretence, there is no doubt that it was an infringement of the rules concerning lockdown that were in place at the time. These stated that indoor mixing was barred except for within a single household, and that outdoor contact was limited to two households, up to a maximum of six people. It remains to be seen whether the Metropolitan Police offer to investigate this, as they have refused to delve into other gatherings in and around Downing Street. But whatever happens from a legal perspective, the reputational damage is done.
There is probably no way back now for the Johnson administration in its current form. Whatever lines his supporters come up with – insincere apologies, an admission, as Jacob Rees-Mogg seemed to make, that the lockdown rules had been too harsh and too swiftly implemented, or a promise that the Prime Minister will ‘reset’ his operation – will soon wilt, killed by a thousand damning newspaper headlines. All Starmer now needs to do in Prime Minister’s Questions is to ask Johnson six times why he hasn’t resigned for impropriety, and there is no convincing riposte that the Prime Minister can make. These revelations ensure that his eventual defenestration is all but a given. The only question now is when, and how, rather than if, he goes.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the current government, it has been defined by carelessness and hubris. The Queen mourning her late husband at a time of lockdown shows one side of the British character: stoicism, dignity and a willingness to follow the rules. Whatever went on in Downing Street the night before indicates the reverse: flippancy, selfishness and a belief that the laws that the government made, and that the police zealously enforced, do not apply to the advisers and staff working for them. Sooner rather than later, public outrage is going to teach this administration a very painful lesson.