One of the odder ideas to have bubbled to the surface of Britain’s right-wing commentariat these past few weeks, like scum from a blocked drain, is that the apparently near constant parties in Downing Street during lockdowns didn’t actually break the law. The Prime Minister’s residence is Crown land, you see, and thus exempt from Covid regulations. Ergo: rules on social distancing, restrictions on socialising and so on never applied.
This may very well be nonsense – lawyers have been arguing about it in the pages of the Spectator; ask somebody cleverer and better paid than me. But the Prime Minister’s defenders spent several weeks hanging on to this idea nonetheless, like drowning men clinging to driftwood. Aha! they’d say with a flourish. Boris didn’t break the rules; he was never subject to them! Then somebody, somewhere, seemed to grasp that “it’s literally one rule for us and another for you” was not a line that would be well received in the Red Wall, and people stopped peddling it.
This is, in some ways, a shame, as it’s the best one-line description of Johnsonism anybody has yet managed to formulate. Supportive and gullible newspaper columnists have often written of libertarian impulses in the man who is now our Prime Minister, but in fact these were nothing more than a transparent belief that the rules do not apply to him – whether the rules in question are legal or merely those of common social decency. Remember the day he snatched a reporter’s phone? Or the time he hid in a fridge, to avoid speaking to Good Morning Britain? Lord knows nobody wants to talk to Piers Morgan, but there is a limit to what you can do to avoid him.
Those two incidents, remarkably, took place in the same week (that of the 2019 election; sometimes at night I still hear the screaming). But it has been entirely clear who and what Johnson is since long before he entered public life. A school report from 1982 periodically goes viral, precisely because it seems so telling. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else,” wrote his classics master who, working at Eton, surely knew arrogant entitlement when he saw it.
Once upon a time, this was even part of the appeal. As with Donald Trump and Brexit, voting for Boris Johnson was, among other things, a way of sticking it to a stuffy, stuck-up establishment that people felt looked down on them. Johnson’s refusal to take anything seriously or allow himself to be subject to the rules that bind everyone else helped him to appeal to voters other Tories could not. After all, if the rules don’t apply to the PM, then he must not think they apply to the rest of us, either?
But he does – and party-gate is the moment when everyone noticed. Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings built a career by showing abject contempt for this country’s politicians and for journalists which – since, everybody else hates our guts – went down rather well. The moment Cummings fell from grace was the moment the public realised that this contempt extended to them, too. The same, it is now abundantly clear, is true of Johnson.
That contempt was on display in the careful wording of his “apology”. The PM took care to stress that his behaviour “could be said technically to fall within the guidance”, and seemed more concerned with public rage and perceptions of wrongdoing than he was with actually apologising (the word “sorry” did not put in an appearance). He is reported to resent even this concession. The Prime Minister knows he has to say something, to get the whingers and doomsters off of his back; that doesn’t mean he believes he’s done anything wrong. The rules, in his mind, do not apply.
In one fairly literal sense, he’s right. Despite having used Covid laws as an excuse for all sorts of authoritarian nonsense – not least, breaking up a vigil for a murdered woman – the Metropolitan Police has repeatedly declined the opportunity to investigate the growing pile of evidence of law-breaking in Downing Street. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine that Commissioner Cressida Dick might not be over-eager to pursue a Prime Minister who has allowed her to remain in post despite scandal after scandal.
But believing that the police’s support will help Johnson is to mistake a political problem for a legal one, and the public have seen now that the clown was laughing at, not with, them. Polls can shift; the PM may survive. But he will never again be the electoral asset he was. Boris Johnson will always be the man who partied while the bodies piled high, and then refused to even see why that was wrong.