Ambling around unconvincingly in a police outfit to promote his new war on drugs, in December Boris Johnson proudly declared: “Those who break the law have nowhere to hide.” I doubt the so-called county lines gangs flinched at his show of bravado, but for Johnson and those close to him in Number 10, these words might come to haunt them.
Having already lied about Christmas parties taking place at the center of government when COVID restrictions, backed by the force of the law, clearly stated they were not allowed, the principal private secretary organized a socially distanced soiree in May 2020 and invited one hundred people, just as the country was enduring its most stringent lockdown. The emails leaked to ITV News could, and should, be the end of Johnson’s political career.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the prime minister himself has admitted attending. With the government hoping the issue would get forgotten over Christmas amid brussels sprouts, gift giving, and a restriction-free New Year, an unwelcome spotlight on his hypocrisy is a less than optimal start to 2022.
Nevertheless, this moment of danger for Johnson raises wider questions. Of all the things the Tory government are responsible for — the unnecessary deaths and the light-minded and seemingly reckless approach to public health, for a start, and the rest, like the betrayals over his “leveling up” agenda and the National Insurance increase — the question is not so much why the partying scandal has taken lumps out of Johnson’s poll ratings but why some of his erstwhile allies, particularly in the media, have chosen this moment to find their knives and plunge them in.
The first argument is that Johnson has served his purpose and has now outlived his usefulness. This purpose was comprehensively besting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in an election after the fright the British establishment got in 2017. Not only were anti-cuts politics mainstream to an extent unthinkable before and during the election two years earlier, but socialist and left-wing ideas came surging back long after it was common sense to believe them buried and forgotten. In this reading, getting Brexit done was cover for peeling off a section of the Labour vote and putting the Left back into its box. With Johnson’s primary objective achieved, there is no longer any need to suffer his antics.
The second is the seemingly growing threat from Labour itself. Having trailed behind the Tories and achieved nothing but woe with terrible by-election results, it was Keir Starmer’s leadership that had a question mark hanging over it going into the 2021 party conference season. But debacle after debacle cannot but affect the politician presiding over them, and so with the Owen Paterson corruption affair and “partygate” finally tilting the polls in Labour’s direction, Johnson is not looking like the electoral asset he once was. Getting rid of Johnson now might appeal to some Tory MPs concerned about the whiff of corruption and scandal, and give his successor plenty of time to settle in ahead of the next election.
The final argument is an establishment backlash against his extreme and often authoritarian behavior. Johnson’s efforts to prove he was serious about seeing Brexit through prior to the 2019 election played fast and loose with the law of the land, including his attempted closures of Parliament and a cheerful willingness to risk the integrity of his own party by unceremoniously booting out grandees and otherwise loyal Conservatives. This might have been excused by the exigencies of the situation and the priority of defeating Labour, but the creeping authoritarianism of Johnson’s government and its contempt for any measure of accountability came to a head with the Paterson scandal.
The move to shield the former North Shropshire MP from a minor tap on the wrist while overhauling parliamentary standards to make it even more toothless concentrated some establishment minds on his potential danger to the modicum of democracy we have in this country, and therefore Johnson’s threat to a chief prop of the state’s legitimacy. Other establishment figures might have had their material interests in mind too: a regime of unaccountable cronyism could mean they might miss out on government-backed business opportunities. Therefore, getting shot and replacing Johnson with someone a bit more in tune with the wider interests of their class would be a better outcome than letting him continue.
But these arguments only go so far. Given the numbers of people invited to the parties and how leading journalists and editorial offices must have known about the extent of Johnson’s flagrant contempt for the rules, why have they chosen now to report on partygate? Why have they belatedly discovered the chief rule-maker was also the chief rule-breaker? Are they in cahoots with behind-the-scenes shadowy forces who have it in for the prime minister? Occam’s razor suggests not.
The Westminster media game overlaps with but is not identical to the politics it reports on and influences. In the first place, its commentary on who’s in and who’s out is dependent on access to the leading personalities of the day. If one’s criticisms have to be tempered by the desire to keep their contact list current, the lobby has an incentive to muzzle itself. The leaks will keep coming provided the boat isn’t rocked too much.
Additionally, for almost the entirety of the pandemic, the Tories have been well ahead in the polls, partly because they’ve been the undeserving repository of a spirit of national solidarity that was particularly prominent in the early phase of COVID and has had a lingering effect among some layers of voters. For journalists, reporting on Johnson’s partying a year ago, and especially not long into the restrictive period in 2020, might have had knock-on effects on confidence in the government’s competency in managing the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine program. This would undoubtedly have had career implications for any reporter or editor who blew the whistle, with the threat of action by the Tories against any programming that stuck its head above the parapet.
With this immediate danger passed, and thanks to movement in the polls, it’s significant it was the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar — the paper least compromised by associations with the government — that broke the initial story and opened the floodgates. The initial revelations were a hot story that captured the public’s attention, and as the media are in the business of competing for attention, the rest have now followed suit — some of them in tune with the growing Tory hostility to the prime minister and getting egged on for their own purposes, but all of it to be relevant to audiences old and new.
Johnson’s difficulties are entirely of his own making. His hubris has brought him low, as it was always going to do. This episode reminds us that our opponents are not a monolithic bloc, and divisions among their ranks can open up political opportunities for the labor movement. This is such a moment.