25 May 2023

Spare us the never-ending Partygate psychodrama


Just when you thought it was safe to delete the words ‘ambushed by cake’ from your mental hard-drive, ‘Partygate’ rears its ugly head once more. Dread it, run from it – the Boris Johnson tragicomedy catches up with you all the same.

The Cabinet Office has referred the ex-Prime Minister to the police over new claims that he broke lockdown rules during his premiership. Visits by his friends and family to Chequers during periods where Covid restrictions were in place were discovered in his ministerial diary.

The reason these were uncovered was because the Cabinet Office is currently paying for Johnson’s legal advice ahead of the upcoming inquiry into the Government’s management of the pandemic. Johnson denies any rules were broken – but Mandy Rice-Davies rules apply.

Naturally, the Jacobites are out in force. Johnson’s supporters were quick to blame Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden, the minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, for a ‘witch-hunt’ against their man. These claims hardly help his position ahead of the Privileges Committee bestowing its verdict.

Threats have been made to ‘obstruct’ Sunak’s government, including by having three loyalist MPs expected to get peerages from Johnson resign their seats to trigger by-elections the Government will likely lose. There have also been the predictable dark mutterings about ‘letters going in’ to Graham Brady – a man who really must feel too old for this shit by now.

Unsurprisingly, these frenzied briefings have been met with irritation by Number 10, and amusement by fellow MPs. Ministers deny being involved in the decision to hand over the diaries to the police. MPs remember the last-days-of-Saigon vibe to Johnson’s late premiership and – aside from a few Hiroo Onodas – have little desire to swap it for the return to normalcy (and sanity) Sunak has brought.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the argument of Peter Cruddas – think Henry Bolingbroke, without the wig or literary talent – in his trenchant defence of the King Across the Water in The Telegraph. I’m not the Conservative Democratic Organisation’s biggest fan, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In the same week as our national life has been diminished by the Suella Braverman non-scandal, Cruddas is right to highlight that something rum is going on in Whitehall. Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Braverman – and now, perhaps, Johnson. Is the Blob out to get Tory politicians it dislikes?

Conspiratorial thinking can be pushed too far. Each case needs to be examined on its merits. The Sue Gray report, which some claim was designed to ‘get’ Johnson, was something of a whitewash. Nonetheless, ministers should be able to feel they can trust their officials. Stories like this add to the narrative that the Civil Service has in some way ‘gone rogue’.

Cruddas also floats the idea of ‘a general Covid amnesty for people deemed to have made small breaches’ of ‘the type that in normal times would be considered the basic exercise of liberty’. The idea is an attractive one, and not only to ex-Prime Ministers with a reputation to salvage.

Covid regulations were in place at a specific time to deal with a specific crisis – one that the WHO has now decreed is over. Those fined for eating a kebab on a pub crawl or driving to Cheltenham without an excuse were victims of ludicrous rules that stripped us of our basic freedoms and were often enforced arbitrarily. Drawing a line under that period would be a moment of national catharsis.

But, as Yuan Yi Zhu has pointed out, it can now never happen whilst the Tories are in power. Why? Partygate, of course. Why would Sunak court the public opprobrium associated with a measure that will only ever be painted as a pardon for his predecessor-but-one? It didn’t do Gerald Ford much good.

What’s more, any hope that a pardon could be a get-out-of-a-fixed-penalty-notice-free card for Johnson falls on the fact that any such act must exclude politicians and civil servants. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, and Caesar should be too. They made and implemented the rules. They had a duty to follow them – or admit how absurd and draconian they were.

But Cruddas is right to suggest that few ‘outside of Whitehall…seriously want to have [the discussion over Covid] again’. We’ve been trying to enjoy collective amnesia about the pandemic. Unless you’re a serial mask enthusiast or GB News host, the only time Covid might crosses your mind looking at a busy restaurant or pub, and marvel that such a thing was once impossible.

Which brings us back to the Covid inquiry: the reason why Johnson finds himself in hot water again. As CapX’s Editor has pointed out, the inquiry might only conclude a decade from now. Stories like this threaten to provide a continuous reminder of the thousands who died in those cruel, long months.

Even more importantly, it suggests that this inquiry will not escape the Johnson psychodrama. Just as the Chilcot Report, despite its cost and time, became an exercise in  trying to make Tony Blair cry on TV, so this inquiry threatens to be overshadowed by its blonde leading man. Goodbye asking whether the NHS was ready or if school closures were justified. Hello cake, ABBA parties, and Dilyn the Dog.

Obviously, if Johnson was at fault and lives were unnecessarily lost as a result, he should be held to account. But this inquiry cannot be allowed to be all about Johnson. So much of our political life already is. Ironically, this would have been exactly the sort of story that would have caused MPs to give him the boot – if they hadn’t already got sick of the dishonesty and chaos.

Sunak has done a remarkable job of repairing the smouldering ruin Johnson left in his wake. This is just another distraction he doesn’t need from a man whose power over the Conservative Party had waned. His name is Bozzymandias, World King of Kings. Look upon his works, ye Tories, and despair.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.