'Partygate' has degraded more than just Boris Johnson's image

One of the most precious aspects of Britain's outsized role in the world has been heavily compromised

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during last week's visit to Hilltop Honey in Newtown, Powys, Wales. PA Images
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Former US president Donald Trump famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City and he wouldn’t lose any supporters. PartyGate scandals in the UK are in the endgame and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a similar mode of defiance.

The man who was once likened to a "cornered rat" – when troubled he would tear anything apart to escape – faces the download of the Sue Gray report into a party culture at Downing Street to conclude the saga. However it plays out, the whole charade has permanently degraded the institutional strengths that Britain used to rely on for its outsized role in the world.

The country was able to parade a conceit that its rules were clearer, perhaps even cleaner, than all the others. And a stickler-like devotion to doing things the right way was its prime virtue. The long list of parties or gatherings in Downing Street during the series of lockdowns and other social restrictions to cope with Covid-19 now stands objectively as a moral crisis for Mr Johnson and his administration.

The handling of the investigation has turned those into confidence-shredding event for British institution.

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The whole saga has coloured how the Johnson government goes about its attempt to govern the country

Consider the American-style political policing that cost £460,000 (almost $575,000) and resulted in 126 fines. This process saw more women than men fined and a disproportionate number of junior staff. Young people who work in Downing Street are not very well paid and the weight of the fines has been heavy for some to bear.

Abruptly the police then closed down the investigation. The suggestion is that, where photographs existed, the cases were easier to solve and so once the new images ran out, so did the police's will to press penalties. Having good lawyers helped and some of those who avoided fines can undoubtedly thank the lawyers for arguing that they were in effect in work mode while in attendance at a party.

The police mistimed every move in the investigation. By announcing that they were getting involved in the first place, they derailed Mrs Gray’s first attempt to get to the heart of the matter. Months have since elapsed in which the public fatigue with the whole issue means Mr Johnson’s political share price now has scandal baked in.

The whole saga has coloured how the Johnson government goes about its attempt to govern the country. Henchman Jacob Rees Mogg has launched a war on the civil service, figuring that few in the public harbour much affinity for the hard-partying bureaucratic elite.

British Minister for Brexit Opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool in March. Reuters

The public was ripened up for the culling exercise by Mr Rees Mogg acting like a 1950s man with a clipboard walking around Whitehall offices checking on how many staff were staying away working from home. Then he came out with his goal of saving more than £5 billion in public administration costs with a reduction of tens of thousands of civil servants from the Crown payroll. The idea is to raise the machine’s efficacy, governance, accountability and return functions to ministers from the arms-length bodies.

It will be hard to convince those at the nub of the cuts that this is anything but efforts at weakening an already weak bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, among the political ranks of the dominant Conservatives, a new era of sleaze has broken out with a handful of seats at risk as MPs accused of sexual abuse are forced to resign.

In contrast to the last episode of scandal and disgrace in the 1990s under former prime minister John Major, the current incumbent is among the most tainted. The idea that the civil servants and the institutions have lost stature is to Mr Johnson’s benefit because he can exploit its weakness.

To address the public backlash in 1995, a leading judge came up with the so-called “Nolan Principles of Public Life”. These are still available on the government website and designed to act as a yardstick for official behaviour. The seven are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.

One consequence of having Mr Johnson in Downing Street is that the UK has been cast adrift from the moorings of the standards setting how the constitutional and political system works. Brexit, Covid-19 and the Ukraine war have happened in quick succession but not disguised the disintegration of the system.

PartyGate is the defining moment for Mr Johnson’s Britain because it calcified his leadership to rely on his, and only his, lieutenants by filling time pursuing populist pledges. The gamble is that these pledges resonate at a deep level and sustain support in the face of failures and fractures on the Conservative party’s backbenches in Parliament.

Mr Johnson is right where he wants to be, at the middle of the equilibrium of a broken political scene. Nothing could sum this up better than the predicament of Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition.

After playing hard for Mr Johnson’s resignation over PartyGate, a gathering that Mr Starmer led has come under renewed scrutiny. The last police investigation still open is looking into if the rules were broken at his late night curry for 20 people.

If he is fined, he has said he will resign. The irony must be so precious for the already-fined but impervious Prime Minister. Politics at its most rat-like.

Published: May 23, 2022, 4:00 AM
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