The Partygate prime minister must answer for his actions

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may become the first PM to get a criminal record

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 29 March 2022 13:51
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<p>Everyone knows that he attended parties – we’ve seen the pictures</p>

Everyone knows that he attended parties – we’ve seen the pictures

It might not be long now before Boris Johnson seals his place in the history books – again, for all the wrong reasons. He could become the first prime minister to get a criminal record.

There’s a first: soon, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may receive an envelope in the post with a fixed penalty notice inside, for breaches of the Covid regulations and a website and phone number for him to pay the fine.

If he does – depending on when the offence occurred and whether he can be bothered to pay it early – he’ll be stung for between £25 and a couple of hundred quid. Mean with money as he legendarily is, in this event he’d be wise not to try and get a Tory donor or the taxpayer to pay it for him.

If he’s foolish, he may try and laugh it off as trivial, like a parking fine; when of course breaking lockdown rules and spreading Covid when there were no vaccines or treatments is a more serious matter.

Everyone knows that he attended parties – we’ve seen the pictures – and generally enjoyed himself at "gatherings", which he absurdly describes as work events. He appears guilty as hell, as do a surprisingly large number of others. It speaks to an appalling culture at the heart of government – set by him, not by his hapless chief of staff or principal private secretary.

The point of Partygate, too easily forgotten now, is that the prime minister and his associates appear to have knowingly and cheerfully broken the very laws they framed – and which they expected the rest of us to obey – in the very building that the rules were written.

The hypocrisy and cynicism still stinks. They partied while everyone else was unable to visit dying relatives in hospital, go to the funerals of friends, or get married. We were terrified and making sacrifices; they were chillaxed. They were having a raucous disco party in “Downing It Street” the night before Prince Philip’s funeral. And all the rest of it.

The rules, so it seems, didn’t apply to them. It was disrespectful. It was a shameful affair, as we saw when Johnson, head bowed, made a sort of apology for it to Sky News; when he appeared, shamefaced and evasive, in parliament – and will no doubt do so again.

The other aspect of Partygate, which has renewed force with the outcome of the police investigation, is that the prime minister may have misled the House of Commons, to put it mildly. According to the ministerial codes and all precedent, that would rightly be a resigning matter. He wanted to cover it up; he failed. It was – and is – his habit to be economical with the truth, or worse; when in a tight corner. No one is surprised, it’s "priced in", as they say; but it doesn’t make it OK.

For that reason too, Johnson should not stay in his post.

The only “defence” is that the rules shouldn’t have been imposed in the first place, that the transgressions weren’t really serious and it was the fault of others, or that Covid was a hoax; but all that is beside the point, legally, medically and morally.

The danger was real – the PM told us so just over two years ago. The rules were there to slow the spread of a deadly and poorly-understood disease, protect the NHS and save lives. This is what Johnson used to say in those press conferences, the “front of house” face to the nation while the boozy, cheesy shindigs were already underway behind him. His apparent behaviour has to be set against the rules and medical knowledge at the pre-vaccine time – not as if he was doing this all now.

Everyone knows, too, that he’s unfit for office if he is indeed the first prime minister in history with a criminal record, guilty of breaking his own laws. He ought to go. I’d be happy to see it (though conscious of his continuing value as an asset for the opposition parties – which will no doubt be seen in the May local elections). But please, not yet.

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To use a current phrase, it would be “tone deaf” to want him out right now. If it’s obvious he should quit as a matter of honour, it is equally clear there’s a lot going on right now, and the country doesn’t really need the bother of a protracted Tory leadership election during a war. We could do it, and the impressive defence secretary, Ben Wallace, would be able to easily slide into the role on an interim or permanent basis, but it’s not for the best.

Besides, Zelensky says Johnson (and Wallace, to be fair) did a good job on sending military aid to Ukraine before and during the war, and that’s good enough for me. Johnson hasn’t actually been a disaster in this conflict – though alienating our oldest major allies, America and France, is an unmistakable and unforgivable failure of leadership. It’s a shame, to say the least, that the UK wasn’t at the EU-UK summit with Macron and Biden, and he made that tasteless if oblique comparison between voting for Brexit and starving to death in Mariupol. But Britain did better than most.

You could argue there’s never a bad time to be rid of a bad prime minister, but it just doesn’t feel right to expel Johnson just now. So the opposition to Johnson (both inside and outside of the Conservative Party) needs to exercise restraint and impose a moratorium on the fallout from Partygate.

We will hear more in due course about what he knew and what he did. No doubt the many embarrassing photographs will get leaked. Perhaps the full Sue Gray report will be published. The country has tough times ahead, and Johnson isn’t the leader we need to take us through them. The moment will come for Johnson to answer for his actions. That hasn’t changed.

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