After days of dismissing reports of a Christmas Party in Downing Street during lockdown last December, Johnson was finally forced to face the truth. But the only reason was the emergence of a video of his spokesperson Allegra Stratton answering questions from other Downing Street aides about just such a party at a rehearsal for a press conference a few days after the event.
The aides appear to laugh and joke about how the party could be denied. It was not a party, it was a “cheese and wine”, said one. It was not a party, it was a “business meeting”, laughed Stratton, who resigned yesterday.
The video makes it utterly implausible to suggest that there was not an event that most honest people would describe as a party. Yet after it was broadcast by ITV News, Downing Street continued to insist “there was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times”, which begs the question whether this denial is as honest as those discussed at the mock press conference.
In the Commons, Johnson found himself ordering an official inquiry into whether a party had been held at his own house. He is doing this because the only way he can justify his previous statements is if he can shift the blame onto his staff.
Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s verdict was savage. “Today's ‘we'll investigate what we've spent a week saying didn't happen and discipline staff for rules we continue to say weren't broken’ was pathetic,” she said. “As a Tory, I was brought up to believe in playing with a straight bat. Believe me, colleagues are furious at this, too.” Her successor as Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the video showed there had been “a party of sorts” and Johnson should resign if he had misled parliament.
But surely, it is the act of deception that is wrong and, if honour, honesty and morality genuinely matter, misleading the public should be treated with the same seriousness as misleading MPs?
This is all the more true given the consequences. The Covid lockdown rules were designed to save lives and protect the NHS, but they had heart-breaking consequences for many families who were unable to be with dying loved-ones as a result.
If the ruling classes are seen to flout and laugh about their own rules, it’s almost inevitable that some people will decide to do the same. They should not do so – foolish behaviour should be ignored, not treated as an example – but it will happen, particularly if new restrictions are imposed. And that will mean the NHS will come under greater pressure and the death toll will be higher.
There is also the wider problem of a loss of faith in government, a growing cynicism about elected leaders and democracy itself. Illiberal populism is on the rise in many countries and the impression that MPs are a conniving, dishonest and privileged elite is grist to their mill.
Faith in the Union will also take a blow, which may explain why Davidson and co are quite so angry. Given the Scottish Conservatives are effectively forced to be reluctant fellow travellers in Johnson’s clown car of an administration, they have every reason to be. As many have pointed out, his antics are a gift to the SNP.
Johnson has been sacked twice for dishonesty. And, according to former aide Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister “lies so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly” that he can no longer tell the difference between that and the truth.
We are now asked to believe that Johnson behaved with integrity, while he was let down by others around him. This stretches credibility. If he has deceived the public, the Prime Minister should resign or, failing that, be forced out by his own party members, sacked for a third time.