It is hard to know what historians will highlight when they write about the current political era. There is rather a lot to choose from after all. Surely though, one of its defining characteristics will be the decline in standards of acceptability to the point where no one knows what is normal anymore. This week standards fell yet lower, as Boris and Rishi – never bosom pals before – became peas in a pod as the first PM and the first Chancellor respectively to be caught breaking the law on the job.
It is like we are trapped in a hideous groundhog day. A scandal gets revealed, the media gasp, the Opposition roar, nothing happens, and then the next day an even bigger scandal comes along, the media gasp, the Opposition roar, and nothing happens. Occasionally the scandal will get so bad that even the odd Tory MP will add their voice to the dissent. This has happened so many times that even this week, when months of Boris’ lies and obfuscation have unravelled, nothing seems that different to how it was last time there was a ‘Partygate’ development.
If it feels like nothing has changed that is probably because it hasn’t. We already knew Boris had broken his own rules. It was already clear he wasn’t going to resign over it. Actually being fined by the police is another new low, but new lows have been hit many times before. Starmer, who you might think should have the easiest of open goals right now, has been strangely out of the news, because there isn’t much he can say. Sure, he can call for Johnson to resign, but he’s been doing that for months, and adding Sunak’s name to the list won’t really do much. The escalation points have all been hit. It is a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Except in this case, the wolf was actually there all along, he just ignored the boys crying and refused to admit he was caught, even when he was served with a fixed penalty notice – (okay, metaphor running out of steam now.)
The only thing that could possibly make this groundhog day different to the others is that Election Day is around the corner. If the Conservatives get a drubbing on May the 5th, it might not be a question of resignations, but of oustings by the notoriously fickle Conservative base. Politics is a results business, and the one crime Tory MPs will not accept is a crime against the ballot box. Expect the next few weeks to be a frantic shootout of parallel conversations, with Labour trying to get everyone energised again about Partygate, while the Tories try to distract everyone with other issues like Ukraine, as well as absurd announcements to distract everyone, like sending male migrants to be processed in Rwanda at the taxpayer’s expense.
But it shouldn’t have to come down to an election. The actions of Government Ministers, particularly the two most senior Government Ministers, should have consequences at any time of the year, not just in May. Boris is the first PM in history to be caught breaking the law, but if there are no consequences to his behaviour then the worry is that he won’t be the last.