Taken in December 2020, it showed Johnson’s then spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, taking part in a mock press conference with Downing Street staff playing the role of journalists.
Ed Oldfield, an adviser to the Prime Minister, asked: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?” As she struggled to answer and laughter broke out, he added: “Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?”
The purpose of this line of questioning was to see if Stratton would be able to hold US-style daily press briefings, to test whether she could come up with a convincing ‘non-denial denial’ and deceive the public without actually lying. She never did assume the role.
The mood was humorous because they all knew then what we know now, after police issued 126 fixed penalty notices for lockdown breaches and the publication of Sue Gray’s report into the Partygate affair, that there were multiple drunken parties during lockdown.
Gray’s report has added more detail. For example, Martin Reynolds, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, sent a message about how he thought “we seem to have got away with” what he called “our drinks”. Gray’s description of one party, which involved “excessive alcohol consumption”, a “minor altercation” between two people, and one person being sick, is particularly damning.
However, the report did not substantially alter what has been clear for some time: Johnson broke his own lockdown laws, effectively encouraged his staff to do the same, and then lied about it in parliament.
Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, speaking to Channel 4 News, pointed this out, adding: “The office of Prime Minister should be above being traduced by the person that holds it.” She also felt the need to say, somewhat apologetically, that she was “old-fashioned” in believing “the office is more important than any incumbent”.
If seeking to uphold standards in public life really is “old-fashioned” then The Scotsman is happy, not sorry, to be labelled this way, although it speaks volumes about the state of modern Britain.
According to a YouGov poll on Partygate yesterday, 74 per cent of the public believe Johnson “knowingly lied” about breaking lockdown, with just 13 per cent believing his claims he did not.
Those numbers fall to just 59 per cent of Leave voters and 51 per cent of Conservatives, which suggests a substantial number of people are putting politics above the truth, choosing to believe Johnson’s paper-thin lies. Even more alarmingly, just 27 per cent of Tory supporters think Johnson should resign, which means large numbers accept that he did lie, but do not regard this as unacceptable behaviour.
In Russian, there are two words for ‘lies’: lozh and vranyo. The latter word is sometimes translated as a “bald-faced lie” but its real function, according to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, is to describe a situation in which “you know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes”.
Johnson’s law-breaking, lies and apparent ability to avoid any consequences may force a similar addition to the English language.
Our politics had already been partially corrupted by the global trend towards populism, which fosters clan-like allegiance and tribal hatreds of opponents. But sending a message to politicians that it is acceptable for them to break the law and lie to us will lead society down a truly dangerous path.
For if Downing Street staffers were laughing about deceiving the public in December 2020, their eyes will be lighting up with glee at the opportunities created by such mindless, unconditional, even slavish support. We get the governments we deserve.