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15 April 2022

Britain’s humiliation over partygate is now complete

The only thing more embarrassing than having a prime minister behave as Boris Johnson did is him getting away with it.

By Jonn Elledge

What, I found myself wondering a couple of months ago, could possibly be more humiliating than for Britain to sack a prime minister over a scandal involving a suitcase full of booze and a row about whether or not there had actually been a birthday cake, and for it to be universally known as “partygate”? This was, it turns out, a very stupid thought, because in retrospect the answer seems obvious: not to sack a prime minister over a scandal involving a suitcase full of booze, and a row about etc, etc.

(Actually, there are a lot of nouns jostling for the limited space available in that sentence. “A karaoke machine.” “Spads acting as DJs.” “A child’s garden swing, reportedly wrecked by drunk Downing Street staffers.” “The feeling of wanting the Earth to open up and swallow you which nobody has explicitly mentioned, but which I think we can safely assume many staffers experienced because of everything I’ve listed up until now.” And so on.)

The real scandal isn’t any of those things, of course. The real scandal is the fact that Boris Johnson has just become the first prime minister in history to have been found, by the police, to have broken the law while in office. It’s about the fact we have a prime minister who doesn’t believe himself bound by the rules he sets, and is clearly intellectually incapable of grasping that this might be a problem. It’s about the fact that he has repeatedly, and demonstrably, lied about his behaviour to the public, the party and – most damningly in constitutional terms, if not ethical ones – parliament. 

Above all though, the scandal is that, during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of people in this country died frightened and, by the government’s own rules, alone – and NHS staff were forced to watch them do so, with friends and families forced to mourn uncomforted. And all the while, the Prime Minister was presiding over Downing Street in roughly the same manner that Bacchus presided over Thebes. There is a reason why this scandal has been greeted by a white hot wave of public revulsion, but Tory MPs, apparently more afraid of a leadership race than they are of the voters, seem determined not to grasp it.

And yet, it’s hard to forget that for all the huge moral and ethical concerns this scandal has thrown up, it nonetheless involves a sequence of office parties of the sort that you’d gouge your own eyes out to avoid, and a suitcase full of booze acquired from the Co-op just off Trafalgar Square, and that this is a profoundly embarrassing thing for a major country to have a scandal about.

I wouldn’t mind so much – it may be embarrassing, but then so is Britain – if it could have only concluded the way it so clearly should. There are many reasons it’s a shame that the Conservative Party didn’t sack Boris Johnson over this in January, the most important, of course, being that Boris Johnson wouldn’t be prime minister anymore. Another is that, if he had been ousted, the odds are that the various revelations about Rishi Sunak’s own fixed-penalty notice, his wife’s controversial tax status, his complete lack of political competence etc, would have emerged during the course of a leadership campaign, and that would have been, if anything, even funnier.

Another big reason to regret the abject cowardice of the Prime Minister’s colleagues during the depths of winter, though, is that it would have been the dramatically perfect ending to his story. Johnson began his public life as an almost literal clown, hosting Have I Got News for You and being nominated for the 2004 “best entertainment” Bafta for his trouble. (He lost to Jonathan Ross.) It would be only fitting that he ended it that way too. Not over an unrealised policy or a failed foreign adventure or a financial crisis but pratfalling over a series of office piss-ups that, by most accounts, he didn’t even particularly want to attend. Boris Johnson, like Shakespeare’s King John, doesn’t deserve the dignity of a proper tragedy. This mess would have been the perfect denouement.

But no: the Conservative Party, which has dedicated the past 12 years to systematically undoing everything that was ever good about this benighted country, couldn’t even give us that. It had to fall into line and pretend the Prime Minister has apologised unreservedly and has learned his lesson, even though he won’t. Not content with wrecking the economy and the welfare state and Britain’s relations with its allies, it had to ruin its own party’s tragicomic arc too. 

And so, the United Kingdom will always be the state that had a major political scandal involving a wrecked child’s swing, some office karaoke and a suitcase full of booze, and then couldn’t even stick the ending. Honestly. This country’s not what it was.

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