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29 March 2022

War makes Boris Johnson’s removal over partygate more essential than ever

Getting rid of a lying prime minister would demonstrate the moral superiority of Western democracy.

By Martin Fletcher

There were no parties held in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns, Boris Johnson declared initially. He was furious to see a video of aides joking about a secret Christmas party. But still, no rules were broken, the prime minister insisted when footage of that mock press briefing was leaked. Yes, he attended a drinks party in No 10’s garden, but “nobody warned me it was against the rules”, the “greased piglet” protested as ever more evidence — much of it photographic — emerged of rampant partying in Downing Street while Johnson imposed draconian measures on the rest of the country.

We now know, beyond any doubt, that parties were held and that Johnson has, as the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting put it, “lied repeatedly to the House of Commons and the country”. In a stunning and unprecedented move, Scotland Yard has issued fines to 20 Downing Street staff for breaching Covid rules, and strongly suggested that more will follow.

For his lying alone Johnson should resign. Previous prime ministers, men and women with far more honour than the present incumbent, would almost certainly have done so. But the count against Johnson does not stop there. Whether or not he eventually receives a fixed-penalty notice himself, he should be held to account for the shocking fact that the law has been broken on his watch and at the very heart of government.

It is he, as Prime Minister, who set the tone in No 10. At the very least he must have been aware of the culture of drinking and after-hours socialising in the building where he lives. We know for sure that he himself attended three of the 12 “events” that the police have been investigating.  When Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating the parties, pointed to “failures of leadership and judgement” in her heavily redacted initial report, she was clearly referring to the prime minister.

Johnson should take real responsibility, not just rhetorical responsibility, and that means resigning. He won’t, of course. He is a man utterly devoid of shame. He has already told allies that “they’ll have to send a Panzer division” to remove him from No 10. And thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there appears to be scant chance of 54 Tory MPs submitting the letters of no confidence required to force a leadership contest.

They are, with a few notable exceptions, a timid lot. Since Rishi Sunak’s disastrous Spring Statement on 23 March there is no obvious alternative for them to unite behind. And short of an outright revolt by enraged constituents, the Ukraine war gives them a perfect excuse for inaction. They will seize on the argument that wartime is the wrong time to oust a prime minister, and that to do so would play into Vladimir Putin’s hands.

At first sight it is certainly a plausible argument. The Russian president has started a war not just between Russia and Ukraine, but between freedom and authoritarianism. The stakes are enormous, and Johnson has been one of Ukraine’s most robust supporters. Yet that same argument can easily be turned on its head. Now is surely the time to demonstrate the moral, practical and political superiority of Western democracy over Putin’s dictatorship. How better to do that than remove a prime minister who breaks his own laws, lies to parliament and takes the people for fools? And what message would it send if he is allowed to survive?

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