The announcement has naturally been greeted with outrage in many quarters; but one of the most striking things about it is its appearance of haste and clumsiness.
Essentially, it looks like a knee-jerk resort, at the height of the Prime Minister’s difficulties over Partygate, to an issue that can normally be relied on to produce a positive response both from Conservative supporters, and from friendly newspapers.
The government appears not to have noticed that the war in Ukraine, now being shamelessly deployed as a reason why the Prime Minister should not resign, has also, inevitably, changed the connotations of the words “refugee” and “asylum seeker” for millions in Britain; and that the simple equation – refugee equals bad person – may no longer play, in British politics, exactly as it did three months ago.
The government’s insensitivity to shifting attitudes on this issue, though, is as nothing compared to its handling of Partygate itself, where its misjudgement of the public mood is beginning to seem almost surreal. The headline story, of course, is about the breaking of the law by the Prime Minister and Chancellor, and about the Prime Minister’s repeated and ever-shifting false statements to Parliament on the subject.
Behind these obvious issues, though, there lies a more profound level of dissonance that I am finding ever more unsettling, as the debate evolves.
Conservative politicians defending the Prime Minister seek to minimise the importance of Downing Street social gatherings, talking about how “the cake never made it out of the Tupperware”, or “the Prime Minister was only there for nine minutes”; Michael Fabricant MP notoriously consoled himself with the idea that any group of pandemic workers might have gathered for a drink after a hard day, provoking howls of protest from both teachers and nurses.
Yet all of these excuses seem to me to be based on a strange kind of denial about the actual conditions in Britain during the major Covid lockdowns. The same politicians who were attending or permitting these events were on television nightly telling us that we must not socialise at all, beyond our own household, and only meet one other person out of doors for exercise. Everyone who could work from home was ordered to do so. Teachers were teaching mainly online, from home, often with great difficulty.
Those who had to go into work were usually doing so to provide medical or other direct services to the public, and were often working under immense stress, in full personal protective gear; others were subject to strict rules involving two-metre distancing and mask wearing.
And under these circumstances, several questions arise that I have not yet seen asked; the first of which is why Downing Street staff were working in the office at all, when they should – if they had been obeying the rules applied to everyone else – have been working from home, and avoiding travel to work completely.
Clearly, some sense of exceptionalism was in play from the outset, a feeling that whatever the politicians were saying to the rest of the population, those rules could not apply to the important people at the heart of government.
From that assumption, it was perhaps a short step to all that followed, from the karaoke machine to the suitcases of booze. And what is truly chilling about all this is not only that it happened, but that a large section of the Conservative Party now seems set on normalising it; not only by implying that everyone was up to the same sort of thing when we categorically were not – too scared, too concerned about pressure on the NHS, too mindful of our leaders’ warnings – but also by actively encouraging a kind of collective amnesia about the reality of our lives at that time.
This, in other words, is gaslighting par excellence, the rewriting of recent history in a way that devalues and disrespects the remembered experience of millions; and it is, of course, most excruciatingly painful for those who lost loved ones during lockdown, obeying rules which condemned many to die alone.
Now, many of those bereaved have their pain redoubled, as they feel they let their loved ones down by respecting laws which were treated with contempt by those who enacted them; some say they feel like utter fools.
And this is what a government like Boris Johnson’s does to a nation, over time. It devalues efforts at good and caring collective behaviour, and rewards and admires greed, selfishness, and rule-breaking; to the point where people feel almost obliged to behave badly, for fear of disadvantaging their families by not doing so.
Now of course, in Scotland and Wales we have been partly protected from this painful experience, by leaders with more integrity, and less sense of entitlement conferred by a lifetime of privilege. And it may be that the people of England have now, at last, seen enough to give the Conservatives their marching orders, at the next UK general election.
In the meantime, though, we all have an obligation, as citizens and human beings, not to accept without challenge the false narratives of leaders whose self-serving motives are so transparent.
It was the Czech writer Milan Kundera who once said that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. And we owe it to those we have lost not to forget the truth of the history we have lived through; but to honour it both as individuals and as communities, to learn from it, and to reject those who would take it from us, in pursuit of power for themselves.