Boris Johnson cannot have his birthday cake and eat it

The Metropolitan Police are now investigating potential breaches of the lockdown laws – including the prime minister’s ‘surprise’ party

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 25 January 2022 13:09
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<p>For the sociable, entitled Johnsons, the rules, as many have pointed out, did not seem to apply to them</p>

For the sociable, entitled Johnsons, the rules, as many have pointed out, did not seem to apply to them

So, after all, the Metropolitan Police have decided to investigate potential breaches of the lockdown laws in Downing Street. The commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said the Met is working with the cabinet office and they have enough to go on not to have to wait for Sue Gray’s eventual findings.

Therefore, we are faced with the prospect of a serving prime minister being issued with a fixed penalty notice for breaking a law that he himself imposed on everyone else, for an offence committed in the very room where the British cabinet had agreed on those laws. This, I think, proves that you cannot have your cake and eat it.

The unfortunate thing for Boris Johnson in the latest "Partygate" revelations is that everyone has a birthday, so everyone can remember how they spent it under some or other of the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Another unfortunate thing for Johnson is that we nowadays have social media, so the many people who now also face the shame of sharing their birthday with the prime minister (and hopefully disproving the tenets of astrology) can relay their own stories about their non-celebrations on 19 June 2020.

Some are harrowing, some just miserable, but none broke the law as the PM and his wife did. In case I’m accused of hypocrisy, I should add that I failed to properly celebrate what turned out to be my mum’s last birthday that year because we were both determined to avoid Covid and to obey the rules, like everyone else. Even a 10-minute meeting could have transmitted the virus, and it was a risk neither of us wished to take. So no party.

In contrast to what hapless ministers put out to defend Johnson say, we don’t actually have to wait for Sue Gray’s report to take a view on the facts that are not in doubt, as they are admitted by Downing Street, nor do we need to humour the flimsiness of the prime minister’s defence.

In no particular order, here are some of the potential excuses for this latest revelation, debunked:

"It wasn’t a party". OK, maybe it wasn’t and maybe there was no booze or music – but it was still a gathering of more than two individuals not necessary for work and primarily for socialising. It was a celebration, and not a PowerPoint presentation about hospitalisation rates by NHS region. Interesting that the likes of Chris Whitty or JVT never seemed to get invited or spontaneously turn up at these gatherings. Also there was singing, which was against the rules, not because of some Cromwellian mania but because Covid is a disease spread by airborne droplets, and singing and shouting at close quarters and in a confined space tends to add to the risk. 

"They were all working together that day anyway". There’s something in that, true, but it doesn’t constitute an exemption. The rules were that such events tacked onto or squeezed into working places were illegal. No defence in law.

"Lulu wasn’t invited to the gathering". Apparently so, but wallpaper woman Lulu Lytle was there, and that is where the law bites. It’s fair to say that not everyone you may meet at a party has been officially invited. A spokesperson for Lytle has said: “Lulu was present in Downing Street on 19 June working on the refurbishment. Lulu was not invited to any birthday celebrations for the prime minister as a guest. Lulu entered the cabinet room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the prime minister.”

"It was a surprise party". This is an interesting one, analogous to the way the prime minister apparently stumbled into the gathering in the Downing Street garden on 20 May. The implication is that it wasn’t pre-planned by him, and he had no prior knowledge. The garden party was organised, perhaps, by his principal private secretary without his knowledge (including when he was actually having a drink with them and failed to see it was a party and an obviously illegal gathering, not a work meeting). The birthday party was supposedly a surprise from the current Mrs Johnson. Even so, he could have said “this is a bad idea” and made his excuses.

More to the point, let me put it like this: so religious was I in following the rules and avoiding social contact that, like anyone else I know, the idea of organising an impromptu illegal gathering would have been out of the question. For the sociable, entitled Johnsons, the rules, as many have pointed out, did not seem to apply to them. The assumption, evidently, was that the Johnsons just didn’t mind people having a drink after a long week – hence the wine time on a Friday evening and the garden parties, and indeed the disco in the basement. The culture was set by the jovial First Couple.

"He was only there for 10 minutes". There was no 10-minute derogation in the law for anyone else, including the many people slapped with fines by police and courts. It wasn’t a defence that was available to anyone else, and it needn’t be listened to now. 

"He got Brexit done, delivered the vaccine rollout and was working incredibly hard". Maybe, but again not much of a defence. Anyhow it wasn’t him working all hours in the AstraZeneca labs and perfecting the vaccines. 

"We need to wait for Sue Gray". We don’t, if Downing Street admit the key facts that make this an unlawful gathering. Politically, Sue Gray is neither here nor there – the voters have made their minds up, and so have most Tory MPs. 

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"The public aren’t interested". Again, possibly not all, but that’s not a defence either. Opinion polls suggest they are, and many are very angry.

"There are more important things to worry about than a cake, like the cost of living crisis and Ukraine’’. Yes, but the prime minister’s integrity also matters. If the prime minister cannot do his job, then he ought to be removed. We got rid of Thatcher in 1990, just as the first Gulf War was beginning, and we swapped unsuitable prime ministers during the First and Second World Wars. Johnson can’t continue because he can’t do the job – permanently distracted and with little moral or political authority.

"The media shouldn’t choose our prime minister. We voted for Boris". Sort of. Not everyone did, anyhow, but in any case, it’s a parliamentary system not a presidential election. The country voted for a Conservative government and it will still have a Conservative government when Johnson goes. Besides, winning a general election for your party doesn’t give you the right to ignore the very laws you make in the very room where your cabinet rubber stamped them. 

This time, I’m afraid, not even his most agile apologists can find a loophole of any kind, let alone one big enough to allow Boris Johnson to wriggle through once again.

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