When the Privileges Committee began its inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament with his statements on lockdown-breaking gatherings at Downing Street during the Covid pandemic, they focused on six events. The last of these, a leaving party for two officials, took place on 14 January 2021. Johnson himself attended this event, and a photo supplied with the Privileges Committee’s hotly anticipated report, released today (15 June), shows him giving a speech with bottles of sparkling wine and beer on the table.
I mention this because at this time that the UK government was working on releasing one of the most disturbing public awareness campaigns I have ever seen. You may have blocked this dark time from your memories, but to recap: after the third national lockdown was imposed on 6 January 2021, posters, TV adverts and social media videos started appearing across the country trying to guilt or shame people into compliance. They showed close-ups of terrified looking Covid patients on ventilators or wearing oxygen masks, with captions demanding, “Look him in the eyes and tell him you really can’t work from home” and “Look her in the eyes and tell her you really need to go to the shop”. One of them, I remember clearly, goaded passers-by to “tell her you never twist the rules”.
These adverts were harrowing – as they were intended to be. They assumed guilt by default, and used the most emotive imagery and language possible to imply that people doing things that were in fact perfectly legal and may in fact have been necessary – going to work or shopping – were personally responsible for Covid deaths.
Compare this to evidence, some of it photographic, of how the rules were being “twisted” in Downing Street. Compare it to the reports of drinks parties, Christmas parties, birthday parties, leaving parties, all justified by the former prime minister in his statements to the Privileges Committee as necessary to “maintain staff morale”. Tellingly, the committee notes: “Johnson, when asked whether he would have condoned gatherings for this purpose in other organisations, declined to say that he would.”
In workplaces across the country – particularly in hospitals and care homes – morale during the Covid pandemic was at rock bottom. People were losing family members, friends, colleagues and patients on a daily basis. The pressure on key workers was unimaginable. Seeing loved ones was illegal, even if it meant they would have to die alone. Funerals were conducted via Zoom or socially distanced to the point of cruelty. And anyone bending these rules, even for a moment, even for the most understandable of reasons, would have faced the censorious glare of the government’s “Can you look them in the eyes?” campaign.
It is easy to get swept away by the drama of the last week: the warning letter to Johnson, his shock resignation, the row over peerages and the war of words that has followed. The former PM’s sensationalist comments, calling the inquiry a “witch hunt” and a “kangaroo court” and personally attacking Harriet Harman, chairwoman of the Privileges Committee, are disturbing for anyone who believes in the integrity of parliamentary democracy and the ability of the House of Commons to hold its own members to account. The fact that the majority-Conservative committee was unanimous in its recommendation that Johnson should be suspended from parliament for long enough to trigger a recall petition is notable, as is Johnson’s bizarre suggestion that the “egregious bias” of its members has something to do with opposition to Brexit.
But fundamentally, what the inquiry and Johnson’s response to it both show was that the rules imposed on the rest of country during the Covid pandemic were not treated seriously within Downing Street, and that the prime minister allowed a degree of flexibility and creative interpretation to himself, his colleagues, his wife and his friends that he would not have made for anyone else. When called out on the discrepancy, his defence is that anyone in his position would have taken a similar approach.
This matters, because that leniency is not being seen elsewhere, even when a dizzying number of rules and regulations changed on an almost weekly basis, with officials, police and the public struggling to keep up. Only this week it was reported that a nurse aged 58 was fined £10,000 – a life-ruining amount of money – for entering the UK from a “red list” country where she had been for a funeral without booking herself into a quarantine hotel. She has said she thought the country she was returning from was on the “amber list”, and that police had reassured her she would not be penalised. The incident took place in September 2021, but the fine was not imposed until February 2023 (the month before Johnson faced the Privileges Committee in person). She was prosecuted for non-payment – though in the end a magistrate ordered her to pay only £808 – and she is not alone: the Evening Standard reported that Covid prosecutions are continuing in our overstretched courts system, with fines “totalling more than £15,000” imposed last week. People are still being punished for events that took place years ago, in the darkness of the pandemic. Yet Johnson thinks it is wrong for him to be one of them.
For a former prime minister to take such a blasé attitude to both the laws he subjected the rest of the country to and to the rules governing the parliament he recently led is an insult. It’s an insult to his former colleagues, and to the intelligence of the public, who can see quite clearly what he said and how brazenly inaccurate it has proven to be. It’s an insult to parliament, whose longstanding processes for holding MPs to account have been attacked by someone who was never going to accept any ruling against him. It’s an insult to everyone who has been or is still being fined and prosecuted, even now it’s been shown there was a very different set of rules in play at the heart of government.
But mostly it’s an insult to the 227,000 Covid victims and their loved ones, and to everyone who made terrible sacrifices because they were told they had a moral and legal duty to shut themselves away and turn down any form of social contact that might have help offer comfort at such a horrendous time. I don’t know how Boris Johnson can look them in the eyes.