One Rule For Them & Another For Us
Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on 12TH January saw the prime minister half-heartedly admit to attending a lockdown drinks party. Now finds himself in hotter water than he did before; Boris Johnson faces calls to resign, internal party dissent and the crosshairs of Keir Starmer’s Labour.
ITV News was the first to reveal an email sent to up to one-hundred officials at No. 10 Downing Street. It was understood that thirty people attended the “bring your own drinks” party on 20 May 2020, Boris and Carrie Johnson being two of the attendees. Johnson (sort of) issued a public apology in the PMQs on 12 January 2022, conceding that he attended the event for just twenty-five minutes and that his attendance and the entire event as a whole "could be said to fall technically within the guidance".
Could This Have Fell Within Guidance?
On 20 May, the official government guidance stated two guidelines that the party was in breach of. Firstly, in-person meetings should be avoided, and only necessary staff attend if needed. Second, in-person meetings should be held either outdoors or in well-ventilated conditions if necessary. Frankly, it seems ridiculous that the PM is trying to justify the party when it was attended by around thirty people and appeared to be indoors at No. 10. Not only does this party not seem to have complied with the official guidance they issued, but it is insulting that the PM is attempting to justify his actions and to contradict the general public. Johnson’s actions and lack of transparency makes for a cocktail fit enough to be served at the party.
Rules That Aren't Meant To Be Broken
The old adage that ‘rules are meant to be broken’ does not apply in this case. However, Johnson may be able to hide behind the difference between guidance and legal restrictions. Whilst we have already established that he certainly seems to have acted against official guidance, whether or not he broke the law and can therefore be held accountable on this basis is less clear cut. Barrister Adam Wagner, explains that the law prohibited people from leaving their home without a proper excuse on May 20. However, Boris and Carrie Johnson’s official residence is at No. 10 Downing Street, meaning that the pair may have broken guidance but did not necessarily break any laws in this instance. Frustratingly, Johnson will rightfully be prosecuted in the court of public opinion but just not a legal one.
To add insult to injury, this does not appear to have been the first time. A total of nine parties have reportedly been held at No. 10 and these are simply the ones we know about. Johnson appears to have attended four of these, and this flagrant disregard for rules is simply insulting. Whilst the rest of the nation gritted their teeth and suffered by adhering to the guidance of his party, Johnson and his peers appear to have been enjoying their wine and cheese boards at Downing Street. However, what may certainly be illegal are recently emerged claims alleging No. 10 staff have been advised to ‘clean up’ their phones – by senior staff no less – amid allegations of lockdown parties. This would be conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and it carries a prison sentence of ten years.
A Reluctant And Half-Hearted Apology
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the fiasco is the PM’s lack of transparency. Johnson had repeatedly lied and dodged calls to answer a simple question; did he or did he not attend the party which had been held at No. 10 Downing Street on 20 May? Indeed, he has misled the public about his knowledge and attendance at a number of the parties before. Even at PMQs, Johnson offered a pathetic apology and deflected any attempts at probing by deferring to Sue Gray (a senior civil servant investigating the party), who may determine Johnson’s future. Whilst his attendance at the drinks party is itself an egregious offence regardless of his justification of it, what is just as frustrating is how opaque the prime minister has been on the matter despite enquiries. This lack of transparency has been emblematic of the administration’s entire handling of the pandemic, surrounding the lockdown parties, or recent high court ruling about the contracts for PPE.
Despite Johnson’s reluctant admission, many unanswered questions remain; who was invited, who else attended and exactly how many parties have been hosted at Downing Street? However, these aforementioned questions are likely to remain unanswered indefinitely, making it little wonder that an increasing number of voting Britons feel apathy. A democracy like ours should be a transparent one so as to gain the trust of the everyday voting citizen. Johnson’s actions are not just a damning reflection on himself but on the institution of Downing Street. As if faith in the PM was not low enough, Downing Street has been found to have hosted two parties on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip. Due to pandemic restrictions in place during this time, the funeral could only be attended by Her Majesty, and Downing Street did little more than offer a lacklustre apology.
Resignation & Labour Under Starmer
This scandal in a vacuum could be argued as being cause enough for the PM’s resignation, let alone when we also consider the long list of other misgivings which have occurred under his tenure. The calls for his resignation are growing increasingly louder, and the noise is getting harder to ignore - Johnson’s position at this point appears untenable regardless of the pending investigation by Sue Gray. This is because he has destroyed the very trust upon which he earned the votes of the voters in 2019. Surely this is not the man, nor the party they believed they were voting for three years ago? The question, however, is who will replace the PM regardless of whether he jumps or is pushed?
Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel are the current frontrunners, at least according to the current odds. However, the second and longer-term question is how this will affect the fortunes of the Conservatives, who are currently in a period of ascendency and have been in government for twelve years.
Whether or not this will continue despite their handling of the pandemic ultimately remains to be seen. However, it seems as if there is no time like the present for their great opponents to take advantage - Labour. Keir Starmer attracted widespread praise for his performance and scalding of the PM in PMQs. Whether or not he can convert this momentum into a genuine electoral challenge will surely be one of the narratives heading into the 2024 General Election.