Richard North, 13/01/2022  

At 6pm on 20 May 2020, says the Mail, "the spring sky was still a deep blue, with the lawn bathed in dappled sunlight. Those entering the garden were reportedly met with a buffet-style spread of crisps and sausage rolls, while the drinks table was stocked with gin and rosé as well as red and white wine".

"Some revellers 'brought their own booze' from the claustrophobic Tesco Express store that does a roaring trade in beer, wine and sandwiches next to Westminster Tube station. Some of the dozens of guests were said to have been looking to the sky with paranoia in case a drone flew over, while other admitted that the trashed garden after the party ended was also a giveaway".

"And amid the paranoia, Downing Street staff were allegedly advised to 'clean up' their phones by removing information and pictures that could suggest lockdown parties were regularly held at No 10, according to The Independent. A senior member of staff told people it would be a 'good idea' to remove any evidence that might even imply they had attended".

Standing back from yesterday's events in the Commons, trying to take something of a broader perspective of Johnson's admission that he attended the event, it might be pertinent to make a singular observation. Simply, the moment in politics that the leader ceases to represent his and his party's ideas, and becomes the message, the only way left is down.

In a sense, that was what brought about Mrs May's downfall. Looking further afield, it presaged the end of US president Clinton and, before him, Richard Nixon. Once their personalities and travails began to dominate their respective agendas – and the associated media coverage – they could no longer function effectively as leaders.

There may have been other factors involved in the downfall of these leaders. In politics, as in life in general, cause and effect is rarely black-and-white simple. Historians can always point to multiple factors, as with the fall of Thatcher. But the end comes when the individual politicians became more prominent than their politics.

And this , probably – maybe, I should say "possibly" – was why yesterday was a turning point in British politics. For sure, it may turn out to be a very small turning point in the grander scheme of things, no more than a footnote in the history books. But it marked the beginning of the end for prime minister Johnson.

No matter what else transpires, this was the day that the prime minister admitted to partying while people died. No matter how much he may attempt to dissemble about it being a "work meeting", he has established for the record his presence at a "bring-your-own-booze" garden party, and nothing he can no say will make any difference.

What was also significant in a small way was part of the response of the opposition leader, Keir Starmer. A lacklustre performer even on a good day, he did not fail to disappoint. One could imagine Blair in his prime – for all his many faults – eviscerating Johnson had he been on the opposition benches. But one particular intervention did land a blow. I shall quote it in full:
Everyone can see what happened. It started with reports of boozy parties in Downing Street during lockdown. The Prime Minister pretended that he had been assured there were no parties - how that fits with his defence now, I do not know. Then the video landed, blowing the Prime Minister's first defence out of the water. So then he pretended that he was sickened and furious about the parties. Now it turns out he was at the parties all along. Can the Prime Minister not see why the British public think he is lying through his teeth?
To call a member a liar from the floor of the chamber – or to allude to a member lying - is, of course, "unparliamentary language" and must usually be withdrawn. Hence, from the transcript, we see immediate calls to "withdraw", whence the speaker intervened, saying: "Order. It was what the public think, not what the Member is saying". Starmer's comment remains on the record.

Previously, I have remarked that we have a unique situation where it is quite possible to go into print, openly calling Johnson a liar, without the slightest fear of challenge or legal action. And now we have the leader of the opposition openly asserting in the Commons that people think the prime minister is "is lying through his teeth", with no push-back from the Speaker.

That, alongside everything else, sets the seal on Johnson's fate. In his "apology" to the House, he claimed that, when he went into the Downing Street garden - just after 6 o'clock on 20 May 2020 – he went there "to thank groups of staff", at which point he "believed implicitly that this was a work event".

A more trustworthy prime minister might have got away with it, but the claim from an inveterate liar simply invites derision – mockery even. The term "work event" will now haunt Johnson to the end of his (truncated) career.

Nor will his weasel words help his cause. "I should have recognised", Johnson went on to say, "that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way - people who suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all, inside or outside".

It is to these "millions and millions of people" to whom Johnson offers his "heartfelt apologies", but one gets the impression that all the prime minister is doing is complaining that these " millions and millions" of plebs mistakenly believe that he broke the guidelines – so it is their fault really.

This is especially case when he goes on to repeat that he thought it was a work event, whence he tells the House, "I regret very much that we did not do things differently that evening, as I have said, and I take responsibility and I apologise". But what is he actually apologising for? From the look of it, his only sin was that he failed to recognise that it was a work event – something he doubtless hopes the Sue Gray inquiry will endorse.

Personally, I don't think the Gray inquiry is going to do Johnson a lot of good. As the Guardian's John Crace puts it: "It turns out that Boris Johnson wants us to believe that Boris Johnson thinks that Boris Johnson is catatonically stupid".

Juliet Samuel, for the Telegraph sets a similar framework for his "apology", writing: "So which is it to be, Prime Minister: are you a criminal or an idiot? Faced with the choice, Boris Johnson made the only choice he could: he pled the fool". She adds:
What other conclusion can we draw from his explanation of what happened on 20 May 2020? He was apparently unaware that his entire department was throwing what appears to be an illegal lockdown party, or what to most of us law-abiding citizens looks very like an illegal lockdown party, and when he did spot the kerfuffle in his garden, popped out to say hello and then bumbled back inside none the wiser.
But there is another dimension here, to which Samuel refers. If this account is true – which she thinks unlikely - it only raises questions about his competency to govern. Thus, she suspects "a cynical rationale behind playing dumb". Johnson's statement to the House was not just a PR move. It was the testimony of a suspect trying to make it hard for the police to nail him.

Johnson, she says, must realise that admitting that he knew Martin Reynolds, his chief civil servant, was hosting a party could make him an accomplice to a crime and get fined for breaking his own lockdown rules. That, she believes, "would surely (surely?) be a political extinction event".

And yet, the countdown to extinction has already started. As Samuel observes, "his claim to ignorance might get the prime minister out of legal trouble. But to the public, it only invites mockery on top of rage". For the prime minister to be an object of universal mockery really does spell the end.

That said, despite headlines which will make uncomfortable reading for the prime minister – who is said to have hidden on the floor of his Range Rover yesterday, to avoid being photographed on his way to the Commons (it's a pity the vehicle doesn't have a fridge) – there is nothing to suggest that the end is imminent.

We are not, for instance, hearing much about the 1922 Committee and a vote of confidence. This could be because, with his payroll vote in the bag, Johnson could actually win the vote, leaving him in a strengthened position. That simply leaves individual Tory MPs sniping round the edges, but nothing much is likely to happen until Gray reports.

The Mail's Henry Deedes thinks that the "greased piglet" has slipped away again, but nevertheless concedes that the "a work event is up there with Dom's eye test at Barnard Castle". And that, however long it takes, is the extinction event.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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