It is hard to keep up with the sheer number of outrage-inducing details emerging from the saga of Boris Johnson and the Downing Street parties. Last week we were forced to contemplate the absurdity of the Metropolitan Police investigation into 12 separate events. Having banned the civil servant Sue Gray from publishing her own inquiry in full lest it affect the force’s ability to interview No 10 suspects effectively, it then declined to interview them after all.
Instead, police sent questionnaires to the Prime Minister and others to be filled out at their leisure (just to make sure they all had time to get their stories straight). We also had defenders of the PM try to play down the criminal sanctions that are fixed penalty notices, arguing that they were more akin to parking fines — which would be more convincing if the fines for breaking lockdown were civil rather than criminal penalties and if they hadn’t been introduced by the very government that is now trying to argue they don’t matter.
The moment I gave up on trying to keep a handle on my indignation was when I read that the PM’s lawyer was intending to argue that Downing Street is in a “unique” legal situation as it is both a workplace and a private residence, thereby absolving Johnson of any guilt for attending illegal gatherings. In exactly what way is it “unique” to have your home double as a workplace? Like so many people I’ve tried to erase as much of the pandemic as possible from my memory, but I distinctly recall the government stating multiple times during the various lockdowns that people should work from home wherever possible, as a way of reducing social contact and slowing the spread of the virus. The result of this edict was a surge in demand for desks, laptop stands and ergonomic chairs, as millions of us turned our homes into makeshift offices.
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Two years in, that blending of realms has taken its toll. It’s all very well for ministers such as Oliver Dowden to bluster about home-workers skiving as though it takes a rush-hour commute to ensure productivity, but the reality for many has been the opposite: a work day that blends into leisure time, with the laptop always in the corner exuding an air of judgement for every moment not worked.
Downing Street appears to have been blurring the boundaries in a different way. In the excuses we’ve heard from those defending the government over the past few months, the living quarters and the offices populated by the Prime Minister, his advisers and civil servants all attained a kind of nebulous quality: both workplace and private home, one collective household, bound by different rules to the rest of us. And in this lockdown-exempt bubble a party atmosphere prevailed. Whereas home-working for the public meant shutting off social contact, isolated from our colleagues as well as our family and friends, for those actually making the rules it seems to have been a justification for the opposite. If a home is also a workspace, the twisted logic goes, work meetings must be permitted there. And since any meetings in a workplace are by definition a work event, the Prime Minister could have any number of acquaintances boozing in his flat, as long as they found time to mention their jobs in between jiving to Abba.
We’ll find out to what extent the Met buys this argument when the fixed penalty notices are handed out — there’s news this week that the public will be told how many are issued for which events, if not who they go to. There is a perception that the evidence hinges on the details: a cake here, a bottle of bubbly there, all indicating a degree of merriment that stretches the definition of “work event” to breaking point. It’s all rather like McVitie’s going to court over whether a Jaffa Cake counts as a cake or biscuit for tax purposes, baking a giant chocolate-covered orange sponge to prove its cake-like qualities. It’s been interesting to debate, Socratic dialogue style, the precise attributes that make a gathering a party rather than regular office socialising — until you remember that office socialising wasn’t allowed either. Not even in actual offices, and certainly not in the strange hybrid home-working spaces most of the country was locked in.
I think that’s what I find so insulting about Johnson’s latest defence, as he tries to squirm out of the corner he’s backed himself into with so many misleading and contradictory excuses. Any of us could have had a lockdown party in our homes and claimed — by Downing Street logic — that it was a work meeting, but I doubt the police who handed out more than 85,000 fixed penalty notices for lockdown breaches would have been amused. That’s a loophole so gaping it would have torn wide open the very concept of lockdown, not just moving the goalposts but telling the nation that the game they were participating in — at huge personal sacrifice — wasn’t happening at all. Invoking it now reframes as a matter of individual choice the personal hell of isolation and loneliness that millions of people endured for months because it was literally a criminal offence to do otherwise.
It was fine for Johnson to party because we all could have joined him, had we only known that the rules drummed into our heads on the news, which thousands of us were being fined for breaking, didn’t actually exist. How stupid of us.
[See also: Boris Johnson is gambling with our future as well as his]