The pandemic has offered a powerful affirmation of Britain’s self-image as a law-abiding nation. Confounding the scepticism of some government advisers, UK citizens proved ready to submit to agonising restrictions on social contact. Elderly relatives died alone in Covid wards. Grandparents waited months to cradle newborn grandchildren. Churches closed. Weddings were postponed, funerals marked by a scattering of mourners. In one corner of the country, however, the guidelines seemed not to apply. In the walled garden of Downing Street on May 20, 2020, glasses clinked, filled from bring-your-own bottles. Among those present was Britain’s prime minister.
Like no other episode in his tempestuous premiership, Boris Johnson’s attendance at a party at the height of lockdown has provoked anger across the House of Commons and the country. It is welcome that the prime minister on Thursday has swapped bluster and bumbling for a semblance of contrition. Yet his apology was flawed and inadequate.
It strains the credulity of the most diehard Tory voter for Johnson to claim he believed the event was a “work gathering”. The Downing Street garden does act as an extension of its cramped and airless offices. This was not, however, a meeting relocated outdoors, but an event to which 100 people were invited. Two-thirds did not attend — some apparently able to discern what the prime minister could not.
Johnson’s statement in parliament was still couched, moreover, as an apology for any perception of wrongdoing, not for the wrongdoing itself. The prime minister was afterwards reported to be in denial, telling MPs that “sometimes you get the blame for something you don’t deserve”. If so, this betrays how out of touch he is with the public mood.
For a leader with a blameless record, a single lapse of judgment might be excusable. It is clear, though, even before Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, reports on her probe into the issue, that this was part of a pattern of behaviour. The premier has shown either that he does not care about the rules he passes, or cares only if caught breaking them. The message he sends is one of contempt: that something is only wrong if you cannot get away with it.
Voters initially warmed to Johnson because he embodied the anarchic streak that coexists with British respect for rules and fair play. They have forgiven many lapses. Now, however, his cavalier attitude to institutions and to the truth — and the belief that there is one rule for the country and another for its leadership — has become intolerable.
When he felt constitutional conventions limited his room for manoeuvre in his battle with the EU over Brexit, Johnson tried to circumvent them, proroguing parliament for five weeks — until forced to backtrack by the highest court in the land. Wrestling with the EU again a year later, he threatened to override parts of the exit deal he had signed. When a Tory colleague was found to have broken lobbying rules for MPs, Johnson tried to change the system.
The prime minister shows no sign of a willingness to step aside, however critical the Gray report may prove. A wounded Johnson could yet stumble on to lead his party into the looming cost of living squeeze, and heavy losses in May’s local elections. Some in his party are not willing to take that risk and are pressing him to step down now; others are circling, waiting before they strike.
As they disperse around the country this weekend, Conservative MPs should listen hard to their constituents, and their conscience. The power to unseat the prime minister is in their hands. Should they choose to stick with him, voters may conclude they have shown the same contempt for the public as their leader.