Just imagine if it all came out at once, immediately after Pippa Crerar’s exclusive Downing Street party reports and the Prime Minister’s initial ‘nothing to see here’ denials.
Imagine, back then, if we knew immediately that the problem was not one part, but the 16 events that Sue Gray ultimately deemed “in scope.”
Imagine that the Prime Minister’s demand for the House last December that ‘all guidelines were followed at all times’ was immediately answered by today’s revelation of the raised knees in lockdown continuing into the wee hours, and – in further damning detail set out in Gray’s Final Report— “excessive alcohol consumption”, an “altercation” between two individuals and a third “sick” person.
Imagine that his flat, shipping box specific refuse that there had been a party on November 13, 2020 had immediately clashed with the photographs of him raising a glass precisely at that party, which were – after the passage of another six months – finally published by ITV this week.
Listen to those early, sweeping assurances from the Prime Minister that there was nothing wrong, and imagine how they would have gone down if it had been known that the police would try no less than 83 people 126 times for breaking the law, and that three of them people would be the prime minister, his wife and his chancellor.
It is abundantly clear that if the country and the Conservative Party knew then what we know now, about things that the Prime Minister himself was uniquely positioned to get to the bottom of things quickly if he wanted to, then Johnson would be finished.
But the Prime Minister was in no hurry, far from it. Faced with a difficult problem, he is said to like to “go fuck himself”, that is, play dead like a dog, until the circus has evolved. The strategy has worked for him many times, but in Partygate he was able to take it to new heights, due to the heaviness and complexity metropolitan police entrance in the whole affair.
This immediately imposed two months of silence, during which any embarrassing questions could be dismissed as an inappropriate attempt to question the proper functioning of a criminal investigation. This also proved to be the window in which Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would ensure that the Prime Minister’s eventual fine for her birthday partywhen it arrived, would appear as an insignificant distraction from pressing world affairs.
Faced with each new round of police news, the No 10 could say it would be wrong to rush to judgment while the investigation was ongoing, and when Johnson was not personally fined in later series, this could be presented as a vindication and reason to “move on” from the now “old news” that he had been fined after his initial protestations of innocence.
And so, even as Sue Gray gives her damning final judgment on the ‘leadership failures’ in No 10 that enabled a distorted Downing Street culture, the latest odds from bookmakers point towards Johnson riding the year. Instead of the famous “slow burn” of Watergate, Partygate risks being a scandal that the passage of time has continued to let die down.
There are echoes of the hesitant way the truth about Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war slowly emerged – in a way that saved Tony Blair’s skin. It is now forgotten, but the great dispute over whether the government had inserted something it knew to be false in a file on supposed weapons from Iraq was in itself a convenient distraction from an argument over a second Downing Street dossierfull of outdated information snatched from the internet that No 10 knew (or should have known) about weapons that Saddam had widely documented as having already destroyed.
In the heat of the moment, weapons expert David Kelly was driven to suicide, prompting an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, an award which presiding judge Lord Hutton interpreted narrowly. As a result, many questions remained unanswered, and there had to be another investigation later. But by the time Robin Butler’s report on the use of intelligence finally emerged, time had passed to the point that no reporter had thought to ask the Mandarin if the Prime Minister should leave, a question – he argued – that he had planned to answer in the affirmative. Eventually there was a third – and entirely unvarnished –report by John Chilcotbut Tony Blair had been long gone by then.
Playing for time avoids consequences in politics in a way that wouldn’t go to court. If a judge knew all the damning facts about a crime, he wouldn’t be pressured into leniency in sentencing just because those facts took a long time to come together.
There is another difference—which I fear is growing—between responsibilities in law and responsibility in politics. In legal proceedings, telling the truth remains paramount: perjury is a serious crime. In the British constitution there was traditionally a parallel: deliberate ministerial truth in the Commons carried a political death sentence. John Profumo and Anthony Eden are among those who have historically found this out the hard way.
But as early as 2006, the political scientist David Runciman was arguing that leaders who could lie convincingly fared better than those who were seen as hypocrites. The pattern of rage around Partygate gave new force to this conclusion. In the press and in the country outside, we heard much less of Johnson misleading Parliament than of his failure to follow the rules “he expected us to follow”. And it was also a fixation on hypocrisy that sustained the Daily MailThe fanatical “Beergate” campaign of against Keir Starmer: “how can he ride on a high horse against Johnson,” the argument goes, “when there are questions about his own campaign dinner?”
Johnson is a mischievous Chancellor who was fired from a journalism job for making up quotes, then shot to great heights in another, with his colorful confections in the Telegraph on the alleged Brussels regulations on the size of condoms and the curvature of the banana. As such, his rise can certainly be seen as the culmination of these trends. Although it is the opposite of the culture wars from those generally tarred by postmodernism, it has long tossed around ideas of island airports and bridges to France and Northern Ireland, without worrying about whether they will happen, preferring the postmodern test of whether something is useful to the ancient of whether it is true.
The difference today, however, is that he was caught telling outright untruths to the dispatch box – and also failed to correct them as soon as he could. . Don’t be distracted by the clownish content of the lies or distracted by the details of the cake and cava. What matters is the lie itself, not the details of the hidden facts.
Some complain that Britain doesn’t have a ‘correct’ constitution, while others say that as long as our leaders are held to account in Parliament, we can get by with OK. I can see both sides of this. But without respect for truth in parliament, we would have no constitution at all. And if a clown is allowed to exploit that position today, then the next one to do so is likely to be a rogue, or worse.