UK needs a swift resolution to Johnson’s party saga

UK needs a swift resolution to Johnson’s party saga

UK needs a swift resolution to Johnson’s party saga
Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to resign following revelations about the No 10 lockdown party. (AFP)
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The center of the UK government, Downing Street, is currently the butt of endless jokes and the root of incandescent anger, the likes of which British politics has never seen. Last week, bruised and battered Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized for a series of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, but not for his role. The chief rule-maker had become the chief rule-breaker.
Johnson claimed he thought that a “bring your own booze” evening party he spent 25 minutes at was a “work event.” This happened in May 2020, when the rules stated that people could not meet more than one person outside. Reports indicate that an internal inquiry is now examining at least 14 parties over potential violations of lockdown rules. This was before it was revealed that “wine-time Fridays” — drinking sessions after work in Downing Street — were a regular occurrence during lockdown.
Johnson set up this inquiry and appointed its head, senior civil servant Simon Case, only to discover that he too had been to an office party. Who hadn’t been at one of these parties, many wondered. Johnson appointed another civil servant, Sue Gray, last month. But the prime minister refused to reveal if he had attended a party, saying that he had adhered to the rules and that Gray’s investigation would examine this. Absurd but true: The PM hid behind an inquiry so that he could avoid saying if he had been to a party. This line did not last, hence his embarrassing, cringeworthy admission during Prime Minister’s Questions last week. It is never a good look when a politician is forced to admit something the public had long realized was the reality anyhow.
Try as they can, the Conservatives simply cannot shift the headlines. It is a tsunami of revelations. At first it was one party, then another, then one the prime minister attended, and a party on the eve of the funeral for the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. His spokeswoman Allegra Stratton had the decency to resign after a video surfaced of her laughing and joking about Downing Street parties in a mock press conference. This chimes with the public, who see those leading the country as mocking them, having no rules for themselves but plenty for everyone else.
The comedy of errors included Downing Street staff ordering their own fridge for all the bottles and even using a suitcase to lug all the bottles that fueled their revelries. Johnson’s young son’s garden swing was also broken, quite how it is not clear.
Many factors make this a dangerous, probably terminal scandal for Johnson. Firstly, every person in Britain made sacrifices during the lockdowns. All MPs have received letters from people who lost loved ones they could not say goodbye to or comfort, all at a time when the PM and his gang were engaged in — in the words of the leader of the opposition —  “industrial-scale” partying. Yes, working at Downing Street at the heart of government was stressful, but so too was working in hospitals, clinics, care homes and on the front line of every service that kept the country going.
Secondly, Johnson set the rules he broke. Even on the days of these parties, ministers would be urging people to stay at home and keep socially distanced.
Thirdly, and perhaps most damaging to his credibility, the prime minister did not own up to the events. He is perceived to have lied time and time again. Officials were apparently asked to “clean up” their phones.
Finally, Johnson is deflecting the blame on to others. One newspaper report suggested he had labeled this “Operation Save Big Dog.” The plan is to blame everyone else but him, the big dog.
This is so dangerous for him politically. Why should those in Downing Street carry the can for the culture that Johnson himself encouraged and is responsible for? Nobody believes that such a culture existed under his predecessor, Theresa May, or that she would have permitted such behavior.
Ministers admit that Downing Street needs a massive culture change. This is a tough argument to land, given that the culture of the place is determined in no small way by the boss, the prime minister. One minister was quoted as saying that Johnson “is so worried that he has started to read his (government) papers.”
Remember also that this is not the first calamity. Only last month, a series of allegations of corruption had Johnson backtracking and apologizing.
Will Johnson survive? He claims that he will take full responsibility. Will he? By most standards, this equals a trip to see the Queen to inform her he is resigning. In part, it depends on how many more embarrassing stories come out. What will Gray discover in her inquiry? He could go of his own accord, but he has never shown such tendencies. Perhaps he will be allowed to linger on, but this risks a political death by a thousand cuts. He would have lost all moral authority, unable to exercise any control over his colleagues. He may lift all of England’s COVID-19 restrictions to boost his standing, but that could trigger dangerous accusations of politicizing the pandemic and taking decisions not based on science, but on populism and self-preservation.
The Conservative Party could indulge in another bout of regicide. Most consider the damage to be irreparable. The HMS Johnson is not merely a leaking ship, but a sinking one. Six Conservative MPs have publicly called for him to leave office. Others may well have sent letters to the party management demanding a leadership election.

Perhaps the prime minister will be allowed to linger on, but this risks a political death by a thousand cuts.

Chris Doyle

One conundrum is who might be his successor. The wannabe candidates have balanced looking as if they back the prime minister, but at the same time not in any way condoning his behavior. The party remains divided, with many thinking the COVID-19 restrictions are already too stringent. Others are concerned at the high cost of living and onerous tax burden. A leadership election would represent a chance to choose a leader based on non-Brexit issues, which were such a key part of Johnson’s appeal in Conservative circles back in 2019. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is many people’s favorite, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss a firm rival. But neither has a solid constituency backing them.
As a country, Britain needs a resolution to this situation. Johnson is a magnet for jokes and satire. The government is not just a national laughing stock, but an international one too — an acute embarrassment for many even inside the Conservative Party. Johnson is a survivor, but Britain needs far more than that. It needs a leader.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech
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