What’s helping Boris Johnson hold on? It could be the war or Tory magical thinking, but magic eventually runs dry. Sometimes, it’s necessary to break the rules, and while governments are not created equal, humans are. When Boris Johnson cheated the laws of his own game, we are left to wonder if the game in itself is flawed. While the rest of the UK was having “wine-time Fridays” in the confinements of their own homes, Johnson and his government were having drinks on the greens of 10 Downing Street. When the news first broke, the world was so busy breathing the air of freedom that no one fully understood the implications of this – not only for Mr Jonhson but the electorate as a whole, which remains a question for today.
Boris Johnson seems to be hiding behind the “unintentionally” defence. While the Prime Minister may appear apologetic at times for breaking Covid regulations during England’s first lockdown, he must maintain the same stance when he does not believe he was not doing anything wrong. This cover is essential in ensuring he can’t be found to have consciously misled Parliament when he assured that rules were not broken in N10, back when the stories of staff with a case of rosé and a DJ first emerged. Johnson will aim to draw a veil over the issue, punch off the call to resign and urge his government to focus on topics such as the war in Ukraine. This issue will inevitably drag on.
Have we seen much good foreign press about the Prime Minister? He tries to turn the page over the coronavirus lockdown-breaching government parties by reminding his MPs of his “major” role in responding to the war in Ukraine. Either by walking the deserted streets of Kyiv alongside a fully armed President Zelenskyy or pledging aid, he is met with heaped praise in Ukraine, but not at home. The prime minister told the MPs as they met for the first time since he received his penalty, humbled, acknowledging that “people had a right to expect better of their prime minister”. However, he swiftly pivoted to the war engulfing Ukraine, stating that in relating to the disdain he felt toward him, he had “an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people and to respond in the best traditions of our country to Putin’s barbaric onslaught against Ukraine”.
“Don’t they know there’s a war on?” read the front page of the Daily Mail, excoriating those calling for Johnson’s resignation. Across the land, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cabinet loyalist and other Conservative MPs are using the same narrative: we need Johnson now more than ever, defending the country against Russia. Boris Johnson has his Winston Churchill moment. The only difference is that Johnson is not a wartime leader; Britain is not at war in Ukraine in the real world, and the nation’s armed forces are not in combat against Russia. The rhetoric from Conservative politicians places Johnson in the middle of this existential battle when realistically, there is very little meaningful help he can provide. Moreover, it is not isolated to remove a leader during wartime; there are plenty of precedents – Neville Chamberlain, Herbert Asquith, Tony Blair, Oliver Cromwell, you name it. On one side of the argument, apart from plenty of historical precedent for removing a prime minister during wartime, Boris Johnson is guilty of breaking the law.
Having said this, a poll of party members saw Johnson’s standing rise 15 points. The polemics over parties and whether birthday celebrations ambushed the Prime Minister seem utterly trivial when set against a real war. However, it becomes evident that as much as foreign policy affects the electorate’s polling numbers, those at home care about domestics and Johnson lied at home.
War aside, Partygate has significance beyond a single prime minister’s behaviour. Much of the anger about his breaking his lockdown regulations is sincerely personal – many of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic and were unable to attend funerals or those who missed family events are licensed to be angry; no wonder Partygate matters to them. The unmasked secrets about the party culture at the heart of Johnson’s government do not fit with the central myths of the conservative’s political narrative. The Tories with Johnson in power may have isolated themselves from the Thatcherite use of free-market economics to move closer to the crony capitalism displayed in the arguably dubious Coronavius contracts. Still, in the process, they have also disregarded another Thatcherist mantra, one of cost-effectiveness, and while policy during the pandemic was costly, it was hardly practical. For example- the income of critical workers during the pandemic, NHS staff, transport workers, and delivery staff. The offer for NHS staff of 3% is very well below the inflation rates, leading to a significant cut in real income. In Johnson’s Britain, hard work does not seem to get rewarded.
Partygate’s implications on the constitution are even graver. It does not matter if the PM’s criminal offences are publically considered serious; misleading Parliament, on the other hand, is. And without serious accountability, there is little control to prevent the Executive from grasping even more power. Without scrutiny, the Executive gets away unpunished. Partygate has made it clear that the constitutional regime that aims to safeguard such conduct is mainly outdated and unfit. That, however, won’t happen while he is in office, and if Partygate leads to his fall, it is in the impact on the Conservative Party that Partygate’s legacy will be found.