Boris Johnson’s line on last year’s Downing Street Christmas party cannot hold. No 10 can surely no longer claim “there was no party” now his aides have been seen laughing and joking about it in a video of their mock press conference on the issue leaked to ITV News.
Rule number one in the spin doctors’ playbook is: “We spin, but we don’t lie.” They know they have no credibility left with the media and thus the public if they are caught lying. But this controversy is not about Johnson’s aides, some of whom might lose their jobs over it, but the prime minister himself. For the past seven days, Johnson and his ministers have issued evasive denials, insisting that Downing Street did not breach the Covid guidelines at the time, which ruled out social events at work.
For once, belatedly at PMQs today, Johnson was forced to come clean and say sorry, as the Department for Education was quick to do after it emerged last night that it also held a staff party last Christmas. This can conveniently be dumped on Gavin Williamson, the hapless former education secretary, because he has already been fired.
The latest self-made crisis for Johnson is much deeper. It is most definitely not, as some Johnson allies hope, just another media squall that will blow over. It is not just that the hypocrisy will anger millions of people who made personal sacrifices last Christmas – including being unable to visit dying family members. It is worse because it means the government cannot do its job properly, and during a national emergency.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, was pulled from a round of media interviews this morning to promote the vaccine booster campaign. Or perhaps he and other ministers have gone into silent mode until Downing Street clears up its own mess – their nuclear weapon. It seems that Johnson has taken his ministers and MPs for fools, as well as the public.
Ministers are rightly discussing further restrictions to combat the omicron variant but the leaked video about the party has handed people who don’t want to stick to them the perfect excuse to ignore them. So any new curbs – and there are bound to be some – will now be less effective.
Tory lockdown sceptics are warning the video will prevent the government ever reimposing legal restrictions again. If Johnson tried, he would now have to rely on the votes of opposition MPs, which would be seen as the beginning of the end for him. So he probably wouldn’t try – even if that meant not doing the right thing to save his own skin.
The hostile reaction from Tory backbenchers will worry Johnson much more than the opposition attacks; his stock in his own party was already falling after the worst few weeks of his premiership. This fiasco will lead other Tory MPs to conclude Johnson has lost his magic touch.
This mire is deeper than Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham; the government should have learnt its lesson from that damaging episode and the timing of the current controversy is devastating as Christmas and the prospect of new restrictions loom.
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Unlike many of Johnson’s previous scrapes, the public will notice this one. Even before the video emerged, 75 per cent of people had heard about last year’s party, according to Savanta ComRes, and almost two in three thought Johnson should apologise for it.
The most dangerous thing for Johnson is that voters conclude this is not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of behaviour. This might just be the tipping point when Johnson’s casual approach to the rules and life in general – the “oh, it’s just Boris” syndrome – is no longer appealing to some voters, but becomes a big negative for a majority of them.
Johnson has form. I cannot imagine another prime minister in recent times allowing Priti Patel to remain as home secretary despite breaking the ministerial code over the alleged bullying of officials, and allowing his adviser on ministerial ethics to resign instead of her. Johnson should have forced Cummings out over his Barnard Castle trip. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he initially tried to keep Matt Hancock after pictures emerged of him breaking Covid rules by kissing an aide in his office. Then Johnson led the foolish campaign to save the disgraced former MP Owen Paterson, the catalyst for his most turbulent time as prime minister.
These previous mistakes have now been trumped by his response to the furore over last year’s party. Johnson will have to change his ways – and quickly – to prevent “one rule for us, another for everyone else” becoming his political epitaph.
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