It is hard to know the scale of a scandal while living through it. It takes time, perspective and hindsight to determine whether something truly cut through – (the term ‘elites’ use to describe when ‘normal people’ care about political developments). As such, we can’t say with certainty whether Party Gate will cause lasting damage to Boris Johnson, or just another bout of short-lived outrage… Like that time he caused a British woman to get locked up in Iran and still became Tory Leader, or when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament and still got an 80-seat majority.
However, if we were betting men and women here at Field, we would get off the fence and bet that yes, this will have a lasting impact on Johnson and his Government. For months, Keir Starmer’s main line of attack has been ‘one rule for them another rule for us,’ choosing to focus on the sense that the Government is nepotistic, corrupt and hypocritical. Previous scandals: Owen Paterson; contracts for mates; ignoring the Ministerial code, had some impact, but they were all to an extent removed from the lives of ordinary people. This time, the scandal couldn’t be more visceral. Last Christmas, while we were unable to see our families, Downing Street were partying and laughing about it.
The Prime Minister’s response so far has bordered on the bizarre. First, the line was that there wasn’t a party. Then, it evolved to the fact that there might have been a party, but it didn’t break any rules. Then once that video emerged, the PM decided he is as appalled as the rest of us and that an investigation will be launched into whether there was, in fact, a party. That’s right. Taxpayer money is going to be spent on poor old Simon Case stroking his chin as he wanders around investigating whether this party happened or not. Here is a clue Simon, if you are reading The Word From Westminster as a break from a busy day of investigation: Yes, it did happen. You may not have seen but there is actually video evidence of Downing Street staff laughing about it. One of them has even resigned, and not because she was making light of a party that didn’t exist! Indeed, the only question left is quite how many parties there were because it seems like this was not a one-off. It’s increasingly clear that were at least three and possibly as many as five or six in No 10 as the rest of us languished last year.
Launching an inquiry is an old school way of trying to take the heat out of a story. It gives you a reason not to say anything further – “I couldn’t possibly comment as I wouldn’t want to prejudice the ongoing inquiry” – and allows it to appear that you are doing something. But on this occasion, a kangaroo-court internal investigation won’t cut it. Because there are so many avenues for this story to keep running down. Already more is coming out. A few days ago, it was all about a party on December 18th. Now there are reports of parties on November 13th, November 27th, December 10th. And all the while, Dominic Cummings is hurling grenades from the side-lines as he smashes the buttons on his keyboard to type out the latest mildly incomprehensible tweet. Last night it emerged that the Downing Street Communications Director, who has spent the last month denying a party took place, actually made a speech at said party and handed out awards. Truth and trust are priceless commodities and the cornerstone of our democracy, and they appear to have died under the current regime.
Amongst all of this, came the announcement of new Covid restrictions. Like every season finale, everything is happening at once in the final episode of 2021. Many are saying that the announcement of Plan B is a so-called dead cat strategy – essentially a distraction to stop everyone talking about Party Gate. Maybe. Though if we wanted to distract people from the fact that we don’t follow Covid regulations, the best way to do this would probably not be to… introduce new covid regulations. It would be a bit like announcing a crackdown on drugs the day after 14 of your toilets were found to have cocaine on them. Who would do such a thing?
But regardless of motive, more restrictions are here and God knows how many people will actually follow them. This is where the Government’s behaviour could cause the biggest problem. In a crisis you need strong leaders for people to get behind, whose advice we respect. Maybe the Omicron scare will just be a scare and we will be allowed to go back to normal soon. But maybe it won’t, and there really will be more tough restrictions ahead. If that does happen, it will be essential that we follow public health advice. Lives will depend on it. But many people may choose not to out of anger. Such behaviour would be cutting your nose off to spite your face at a national level, because it benefits no one for Covid to spiral out of control, but equally, you can understand the impulse for people to stop listening, to get cynical, to say no, stuff you, I’m not doing what you say anymore. And that is the biggest problem; the loss of credibility when credibility is essential.
With news coming thick and fast, a further big and so-far under-recognised development came yesterday when the Electoral Commission published its verdict on that old story of who paid for his flat refurb. Whilst the modest fine for the party was not a big issue, there was dynamite in there. Because the report shows WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson to the principal donor fully three months before he has previously claimed he knew about who funded it. Which means the PM… and we know you will find this hard to believe… did not tell the truth when giving evidence to the previous inquiry into this episode. Watch this space on this story, because it is only going to grow and could be as big as Party-gate.
The knives are out. Public knives but also political knives. For many on the Tory backbenches the Johnson star fell some time ago, but this has pushed many over the edge, and there is speculation that a vote of no confidence could be on the way.
In terms of what happens next, Johnson’s whole pitch to his party is that he is a winner. Two Mayoral elections in a Labour city and an 80-seat majority prove that. But if the polls turn against him (and there is some evidence of that already) then everything could change quickly. And the North Shropshire by-election on Thursday suddenly looks like a much bigger moment than it might have been. If the public turn against the PM, his party will. In a heartbeat.
Whether Party Gate ultimately sticks long term, whether the backbenchers actually put through a vote of no confidence, or whether the public respect the latest restrictions, one thing is clear: Boris Johnson has made a right Peppa Pigs’ ear of things. And on a more serious note, truth and trust are priceless commodities and the cornerstone of our democracy. Boris Johnson runs the very real risk that his legacy will be the death of those vital, cherished concepts under his regime.