Dominic McCarron analyses the importance of ‘Partygate’, and why it is likely to lead to the Prime Minister’s downfall.
Ten days before Johnson’s attendance at a party on the 20th of May 2020, the Prime Minister described the restrictions that were placed on our lives as ‘a kind we have never seen before in peace or war’. When it finally came to light that Johnson was flaunting these restrictions and placing himself and his cronies above the law, the public was rightly outraged. Michael Ellis had the unenviable task of flapping and floundering in response to the debate surrounding the matter after Rayner had managed to table an Urgent Question. Johnson must have been quaking looking on and tried to use PMQs as an opportunity to quell the anger. His pitiful performance and antagonising apology left more questions than answers.
This matter cuts through with the public on an unprecedented scale. The Government has illegally prorogued Parliament, presided over a cost-of-living crisis, and widespread corruption to name a few, but this has resonated with the public more than any. The anecdotes recalled by MPs about the sacrifices their constituents, family members, and friends made were heart-wrenching to listen to. It is difficult to articulate the reasons for the disgust on this topic when it is so provocative.
The anger first stems from the sacrifices the public made. Arguably, what the Government asked of the public was the most onerous obligation since the Second World War. Over 150,000 people died from Covid. The impact that this had on the lives surrounding those who lost their lives cannot go understated – those who died from other causes too. The grieving process was interrupted on an unimaginable scale. Those lucky enough to have not lost loved ones lost their liberties for months on end. The damage to mental and physical health through the entirety of Britain was something the Government asked us to put up with to protect each other and protect the NHS. While we are still living in the pandemic, it is hard to reflect on the times that passed, but we will look back and understand just how tough it was.
These sacrifices were accepted in the name of a common enemy – Covid-19. The British spirit relies on camaraderie which helps individuals get through tough times. If the public knows that everyone is doing the same, they know it is for the greater good; each person is contributing to the national effort in some way or another. The indiscriminate nature of this suffering allows the public to grind through it. The link that bonds brothers and sisters across the nation, united in their suffering, breaks when there is a contrast in behaviour – particularly from those setting the rules. The idea that the public went through so much to abide by the regulations while those creating the guidelines ignored them is to spit on the public’s spirit. It hurts the public because the public could have acted in the same way as the Prime Minister and decided not to because they were working for the common good. This is the differential from this and other issues that have not struck the same chord. The public could not have prorogued Parliament illegally, the public could not have been involved in the corruption scandal, the public could not have presided over the cost-of-living crisis – but the public could have broken lockdown rules. They overwhelmingly did not.
These actions feed into a culture that has long been portrayed but ignored by the Conservative Government of elitism. Johnson managed to present himself as an anti-establishment figure in his opposition to the EU and his buffoonery attitude which was appealing to the masses. His Etonian and Oxford education played into his personality as a positive rather than a detriment. Now that Johnson snuffed the rules to enjoy his party (or work-related gathering as he so calls it), he is not a relatable character, he is someone who believes himself to be better than the public. He does not need to sink to the level the public is at if he is the Prime Minister and follow rules. The British public hates nothing more than being made a fool of, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Johnson has been doing so for a long time now.
The overarching importance of this debacle goes beyond the immediate rage felt by all hearing the story, it raises long-term questions for the Government. In tackling the coronavirus crisis, if, worst-case scenario, another variant comes along that requires action to tackle, the Prime Minister no longer has the authority to impose restrictions. Furthermore, Johnson has lost the ability to ask the British public to sacrifice for the common good in another crisis. The public will not listen to a Prime Minister that has put his personal enjoyment over the common good, and nor should they be forced to. The trust between the Government and the public is gone. The damage that Johnson has done, not only to his own reputation, but to the standing of the Prime Ministerial office is irrevocable. We should expect public officials to hold themselves to a standard of utmost decency and good faith, but this has withered away. Historically, we would hold our public servants to a higher standard than the rest of us. Today, the person holding the highest public office in the land will not resign for acting illegally.
The vast majority of Britons believe the Prime Minister should resign. However, unless the Conservative Party acts, Johnson will be able to hold onto his majority until the next election. Given leadership elections where the top spot is on offer very often spill out into a General Election afterwards, a lot of Conservative MPs in marginal seats have no incentive to call for Johnson’s resignation if it puts their job in jeopardy. May 2024 will be the next opportunity to hold the Government accountable, but until then all we can do is hope that people manage to remember the anger they feel in response to this story.
Johnson says we should wait for the inquiry, but I do not believe we need to. It is clear for all to see that the Prime Minister’s actions have tarnished the British reputation on the world stage. While I stated that Conservative MP’s are unlikely to trigger a leadership contest given the fragility of their seats, it seems to be becoming more of a risk to leave Johnson in his job than to kick him out. His position is untenable, and as I write this the rumours of letters flying into the 1922 Committee keep swirling. While we may have to sit tight for the results of the inquiry before an end to Johnson’s tenure, we can be sure it is a matter of when, not if, his head will roll. When that time comes, it will be a spectacle for the country to witness. Just make sure to remember to BYOB.
Dominic McCarron is a Law Student at the University of Glasgow and is currently involved in the Erasmus Programme, studying at Bocconi University in Milan. He tweets at @DominicMcCarron.