'How did we get here?' - Dani Garavelli on the state of Westminster politics
It wasn’t the initial story of the No 10 Christmas party that brought all the pain flooding back for Laura Kelly.
“The party was hurtful,” she says. “But part of me understood when you’ve been working together all day, it’s a bit weird if you can’t have a glass of wine together at the end of it. I mean, I thought it was shitty, but I don’t have high expectations of the UK government; it seemed par for the course.
“When I saw the footage [of Allegra Stratton at the mock press briefing], though, that broke me. The thought that they were all laughing while I was wrestling with life and death. It took me straight back to the horror of that time.”
Many people who followed the Covid restrictions experienced great heartache last December. Kelly’s story is particularly distressing. She was in Glasgow. Her father, Dennis, 68, a retired civil servant and talented artist, who was dying of cancer, was in Belfast. They knew it would be his last Christmas, but the rules meant they could not be together. So she set up a laptop Zoom call. “We were trying to have some fun with him, but he was barely able to sit up. He had to go to bed pretty early and my mum was left alone.”
In January, Kelly self-isolated in Glasgow, travelled to Belfast, self-isolated in her parents’ house, becoming part of their bubble. By then her dad was in hospital; she had moved so she could help look after him when he came home. But at 5am on 12 January, she and her mum were called to the hospital. Dennis died before Kelly could see him.
In Northern Ireland, the tradition is for an open casket overnight in the house of the deceased. Kelly thought at least she would see her dad then. “I thought that would be a time I could sit with him.” But the hospital told them someone else on his ward had tested positive for Covid so the coffin would have to be closed. “I howled then,” she says.
Dennis was a popular man who had run the Arts Society of Ulster. But they were only allowed a small number of people at the funeral and they couldn’t hug.
Kelly is distraught as she tells me all this. “I think there are a lot of people like me who haven’t properly processed grief,” she says. “It’s like there’s a really fine surface. You are managing to cope but then you see how they are laughing at us and it opens it back up.
“The thing is, I believe in society. I believe in caring for your family but also in doing what’s right for everyone. But the way they have behaved has given succour to the people who don’t believe in society, who just believe in looking out for themselves - the anti-vaxxers who have been anti-lockdown the whole time. Now they are able to say: ‘Aren’t you the fool for paying attention? They weren’t paying attention, no-one was paying attention, it was just a big joke.’
“If you have made a massive sacrifice you want to feel it meant something and if it didn’t mean something that makes it worse.”
The burgeoning Christmas party scandal - there are now at least four alleged events - is just one of many controversies which have engulfed the UK government in the last few weeks. Some have created more waves than others.
Shortly after the Stratton footage was leaked, the Electoral Commission fined the Conservatives £17,800 for failure to report a donation of £52,801 in relation to the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat. And damning details emerged about the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.
The latter was particularly shocking. In a submission to the Commons’ foreign affairs select committee, whistleblower Raphael Marshall told of a clock-watching culture which led to thousands of emails from desperate Afghan people going unread. He said that, in the evacuation of 170 dogs and cats looked after by the charity Nowzad, animals had been prioritised at the direct expense of humans and that he believed some of the Afghans left behind had been murdered.
Last week also saw a further erosion of civil liberties. Last-minute amendments added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seek to ban protesters from attaching themselves to another person, object or land, and to introduce a new offence of interfering with the operation of "key infrastructure" such as railways, sea ports, airports or oil refineries. The Bill had already been criticised as Draconian, with lawyers claiming it violated international human rights standards.
The same goes for the Nationality and Borders Bill which passed through the Commons last week. Not only would this Bill enshrine the right to turn back boats full of refugees - like the ones who drowned in the Channel last month - but it would allow the government to strip any foreign-born British citizen of their citizenship without notice or notification.
As digital producer at the Big Issue - a magazine which focuses on inequality and social justice issues - Kelly is more aware than most of the government’s power grabs and what they might mean for marginalised people.
“I see the laughter as similar to both the police and the borders Bill in terms of its complete disregard for what I understand as the democratic compact,” she says. “All these attacks are against everything I believe in and the country I want to belong to. It makes me frightened of where we are as a nation.”
“How did we get here?” is the constant cry of those who - like Kelly - regard the current government as beyond the pale. How did we get to a place where the relationship between right-wing politicians and right-wing journalists appears incestuous; where the Metropolitan Police can claim it doesn’t investigate crimes retrospectively; where a Prime Minister can lie with apparent impunity?
How did we get to a place where Johnson can deny the existence of a party which clearly took place, throw a senior aide under a bus, appoint the Cabinet Secretary to investigate and then hold a press conference to announce new restrictions in the face of Omicron, as if nothing of importance has occurred?
It is a question Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of Open Democracy and author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, has been asking for several years. Open Democracy has been at the forefront of investigating cronyism and lack of transparency and broke the story about Michael Gove handing a £560,000 Covid contract to a business he had personal connections with.
“What you have in Boris Johnson is a politician who, at every stage on his journey through politics has broken rules around probity and behaviour," Geoghegan says, "from being a backbench MP to when he was Mayor of London to when he was the Foreign Secretary and within three days of resigning he had signed a deal for quarter of a million pounds to write a column for the Daily Telegraph without clearing it with anybody.
“The fish rots from the head, the culture comes from the top, and he is the man at the top, so in some ways what happened last week was inevitable. The Prime Minister was never going to accept this party took place, even though Allegra Stratton resigned. And why would she resign if there was no party?"
Geoghegan says he understands why the Christmas party stories touched a nerve. "But behind them is something much more significant and sinister, which is this refusal to accept responsibility and accountability and to deny the reality of what’s going on.
“I talk to lobby reporters all the time and they describe a cultural shift under Johnson. Before, they could at least believe what they were told in lobby briefings and now they can’t. That’s a huge change. You can lose sight of just how big that is.”
A mini backlash began last month with the second job scandal sparked by MP Owen Paterson. Paterson had been found guilty of “egregious breaches” of the lobbying rules. “That scandal was created by the government because, instead of allowing [Paterson] to serve his 30 days’ suspension, it attempted to bring down the entire parliamentary standards structure and that was so OTT it crossed a line,” Geoghegan says.
“The right-wing press said: ‘We can’t have this’ and the Daily Mail carried pictures of Geoffrey Cox and highlighted his million pound-a-year plus second job on its front page.”
The problem - Geoghegan believes - is that most people are viewing all the individual scandals in isolation. They are not connecting the dots to create a narrative. “Because of the way the reporting cycle, the outrage cycle, works, we see the Electoral Commission scandal as one thing, the borders bill as another, and the police bill as yet another," he says. "It’s hard to see how they fit together.
“But they do fit together in the overarching way in which the government is amalgamating a huge amount of control.”
There’s a contradiction here: a party which has traditionally opposed state intervention is cracking down on people’s freedoms. “I was struck by how the libertarians on the Conservative right - people like Philip Davies - who are talking about masks as a socialist measure, had no problem voting for a policing bill which means you can be thrown into prison for 51 weeks on a whim. It’s a very particular kind of liberty.”
Another problem, according to Geoghegan, is that British politics has traditionally functioned by “gentleman’s agreement”. “There’s a ‘good chaps’ rule and everyone is going to behave in accordance with it so we feel we don’t need formal rules,” he says. “It’s fine to have the Electoral Commission’s maximum fine being £20,000, it’s fine to have parliamentarians marking their own homework. We trust they will do that effectively, but then you have someone like Johnson who works out he can take advantage of those absence of formal rules.”
For most of Johnson's time as Prime Minister, Labour has struggled to make inroads on his popularity. Last week, at PMQs, Keir Starmer accused him of being “socially distanced from the truth” but stopped short of calling for his resignation (although he has done so since).
“I think Labour has failed to connect the different scandals, to create the narrative I spoke of earlier,” Geoghegan says. “They’re still tied to the ‘good chaps’ notion of British politics to a certain extent. They need to get out of their comfort zone and present this as something other than ‘the same old Tories’.”
Still, something still seems to be shifting for Labour, with several polls putting them ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since January.
Johnson clearly believes the Christmas parties scandal will blow over as all the others have. A new baby, a potential early recess and the political agenda will move on. Yet this story is “cutting through” - making an impact beyond the “political bubble” of politicians, activists and journalists.
When I spoke to Stefanie Bolzen, London correspondent of the German newspaper Die Welt on Thursday, she was writing a piece headlined “Covid isn’t Johnson’s Biggest Problem Any More.”
“I haven’t covered the story for a long time because there’s always something like this happening. There's a constant drip, drip, drip - Owen Paterson and second jobs, donors paying for a seat in the House of Lords - it goes on and on, “ she says.
“With everything happening in Germany - Covid, a new government, Angela Merkel leaving - you have to think carefully about when to run it because, when people see another corruption allegation against Johnson, they just shrug their shoulders.”
So why is she writing about it today? “Because we are now seeing a wave of new party allegations coming in and Labour is steadying in the polls.”
Bolzen says that coming from a country where politics is "dull and very serious", it is intriguing to see how the UK government can stay in place when the leadership is not following its own rules.
“Things are catastrophic in Germany, too,” she says. “People are really angry with the government, but I think the difference is that in Germany, maybe the communication was wrong and things were not sped up in terms of the boosters, but the integrity was still there.”
In the UK, the cut-through could be felt on I’m a Celebrity. During Tuesday night’s edition of the reality TV show, Ant and Dec took a sideswipe at Johnson. Referring to a gathering among the contestants, they said: “This party didn’t include cheese and wine, or a secret Santa. Evening Prime Minister... for now!”
So could this scandal mark the beginning of the end of Johnson’s premiership?
Andy Maciver, co-founder of the lobbying and PR consultancy Message Matters and former communications director for the Scottish Tories, believes it is possible.
“When US Republican pollster Frank Luntz was over here in the summer, he said he had done some polling and reckoned Johnson was an American-style rock star politician. He said the government could be unpopular, and the Tory party could be unpopular, but Johnson would remain popular,” Maciver says. “I wasn't so sure. It’s not like Trump where almost the worse he gets the more support he gets. I don’t think Johnson is untouchable and I think we are starting to see that filtering through now.”
He points to Labour’s improved poll showing and says recess - which Johnson may see as a welcome hiatus - could make matters worse.
“The relationship Boris has with his party and particularly his MPs is superficial,” he says. “It’s not based on ideology in the way that the relationship between MPs and Thatcher was. It’s just based on him being someone who wins.
“So if you’re one of the 50 red wall MPs - [those in seats in traditional Labour heartlands] - you won because of Brexit and because people thought Boris understood their aspirations in a way that Jeremy Corbyn didn't. If you start to see Starmer getting a bit of an understanding of Brexit and if, while you’re home over Christmas, you have friends and family and people in the supermarket telling you they’re never going to vote for Johnson again, then that will have an impact. The whole history of Tory Party MPs is: if you are a winner they keep you; if you are a loser, they knife you.”
Maciver concedes Johnson has bounced back from seemingly impossible positions before.
“So of course we could be sitting here in a year having a conversation about something else that has happened and he could still be Prime Minister.”
Still, this story is not fading out the way the Barnard Castle scandal did. As Maciver points out it can only be a matter of time until someone who was at the 18 December party at No 10 breaks rank, unleashing a flurry of stories about the behaviour of all those in attendance.
And this is not the only problem Johnson has to contend with. He is facing a backbench rebellion on his Covid Plan B with at least 30 Conservative MPs expected to vote against new regulations on masks, home working and vaccine passports. And his travails over the flat refurbishment aren't over either.
Johnson told his standards adviser Lord Geidt he didn’t know how the work was being funded until immediately before the story broke in February 2021. But the Electoral Commission uncovered a WhatsApp message from the previous November in which he asked donor Lord Brownlow for extra cash. At one point, Lord Geidt was said to be poised to resign. That hasn’t happened, but long-term damage has been inflicted.
“All these individual things - the refurbishment of the flat, the second jobs controversy - are not that difficult for someone with the mass appeal of Johnson to deal with, " says Maciver, "but put them together and throw these parties on top and you think: ‘Everyone has a breaking point and this could be it'.”
Certainly, Ant and Dec seem unwilling to let things lie. After Starmer referred to their initial intervention at PMQs, they redoubled their efforts. When the campmates opted not to tell David Ginola they'd failed to get his letter from home, Ant said: “So they decided to cover it up. If we've learnt one thing in the last 24 hours, it's that you can't get away with covering things up."
It may seem unsatisfactory - with everything the UK government has done - that what has finally pushed the British public to its limits is a Christmas party. Some might view the lack of outrage over successive attacks on society's most vulnerable as a failure of empathy. It is also surreal that a pair of Geordie TV presenters are being held up as proof that this scandal matters.
“Maybe I would prefer the thing that cut through to be the drowning of migrants - which seems to be happening with very little attention - but I’m glad something is cutting through and I’ll take it," says Kelly, who, Omicron-providing, hopes to spend this Christmas with her mum in Belfast.
"I’m glad something is making people think: ‘Does this government have my interests at heart? Does the government have the country’s and society’s interests at heart? Or does it just have its own interests at heart?’”
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