When the PM said there had been “no parties”, and that “rules were followed at all times,” he was telling the truth as he knew it.
If Boris Johnson really has lied to Parliament, he will have to go. Ministers can get away with many misdeeds – drunkenness, fornication, witchcraft, folk dancing – but they cannot intentionally mislead the House of Commons. It is one of those unwritten yet unshakeable rules on which our system rests.
But there is so far no evidence – none – that the PM lied. When he stood at the Despatch Box and declared that there had been “no parties”, and that “whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times,” he was telling the truth as he knew it.
It may in fact be the case that the rules were followed, despite what the Clouseaus at the Met now claim. Under the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, Crown property, including Downing Street, is exempt from restrictions.
The PM has sensibly refused to defend himself on these grounds, knowing it would look like special pleading. But it is at least arguable, on a narrow point of law, that the lockdown did not apply to Number 10.
That point may be arguable. What is not is that it never occurred to the PM that being presented with a cake by staff between meetings might be considered “a party”. Neither, at the time, did it occur to anyone else. I write that with certainty because, far from being furtive, Downing Street immediately briefed an account to the press.
“Boris Johnson celebrated his 56th birthday yesterday with a small gathering in the cabinet room”, reported the next day’s Times. “Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and a group of aides sang him Happy Birthday before they tucked into a Union Jack cake.” Does that sound to you like some sort of illicit speakeasy? Did anyone, on reading it, suggest that rules had been broken? Did Labour MPs demand a police investigation?
Of course not, because no one thought it remotely wrong for key workers to socialise while at their places of work.
Throughout the lockdown, nurses were uploading TikTok routines, celebrating birthdays and generally trying to make our hospitals cheerier. No one called their gatherings improper, and for good reason.
The rules against meeting people outside our bubbles were intended to slow the spread of a virus, not to dictate the behaviour of people who were already under the same roof.
Small wonder the PM told the Commons that, to the best of his knowledge, there had been no parties. A party is a festive congregation of invited guests, not a break in the office day. The only Downing Street event we know of that looks remotely like a party in the customary sense of the word took place while Johnson was 60 miles away.
There may, of course, be further revelations. But remember that, when Johnson told MPs that the rules had been followed, he must have known that everything that had happened in No10 would come out. If it was a lie, it was the stupidest lie since an Amalekite falsely claimed to have killed King Saul, and was put to death on the spot for his pains.
Sir Keir Starmer knows all this. As a lawyer, he understands the difference between social gatherings and people who were legally working together.
But Labour has chosen to go low, making a series of false equivalences between tragic cases where people could not see dying relatives, and key workers at their offices.
Until shortly before the PM’s birthday, hospital visits and social calls were largely banned. Those rules applied as much to the Prime Minister, who was isolated during his own bout of Covid, and who could not visit his mother (who died soon afterwards), as to anyone else. There is no suggestion that he flouted them.
The valid comparison is with what others did while at work. And here, plainly, there really is one rule for Boris and one for everyone else – but in precisely the opposite way from what is usually meant. It is unthinkable, literally unthinkable, that the police would issue penalties to nurses who shared birthday cakes – let alone that they would open an investigation two years later.
For the record, I opposed the lockdown. I thought the rules that split families were inhuman. But Starmer did not. He wanted them tightened, and wrongly predicted disaster every time they were eased.
Which is why many voters now find his crocodile tears off-putting. The latest opinion poll, as I write, puts the Conservatives six points behind Labour – an extraordinarily good showing for an incumbent party at this stage in a Parliament.
Yet Starmer has also tapped into the prissy populism that has been ascendant since the lockdowns, the sense that people in public life should not be allowed any frivolity.
No one objects to Downing Street staff working together, having lunch together, or breaking for tea at the same time. But throw in alcohol or cake and it’s suddenly scandalous.
Boris was elected as a disruptor, a Falstaff, a man with little time for niceties – attributes which allowed him to break the deadlock in the Commons, deliver Brexit and win the vaccines race. But the pandemic has changed the national mood. To switch plays, Boris finds himself stranded as a Toby Belch in a nation suddenly full of Malvolios. “Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Sadly, it seems, a lot of us do.
I understand why Labour MPs want him gone. They remember how he took his party from 8.8 per cent of the vote at the 2019 European election to 42.4 per cent just seven months later.
But what of the Conservative MPs who will decide his fate? Some, of course, never liked him in the first place, some have not got over the 2016 referendum and some feel overlooked or underpromoted. But these groups are still in the minority: only nine of 358 Conservative MPs have called openly for a leadership challenge.
Most MPs approach the question more hard-headedly. They are getting some local flak over the allegations, and they expect to see a gruesome result at the coming council elections, where they are defending a high base. But they will shrug these things off provided they see a government doing things of which they approve.
Which brings us to the heart of Johnson’s problem. Conservative MPs have long been asking what the point of an 80-seat majority is when their policies are barely distinguishable from Labour’s.
They were prepared to make allowances during the pandemic, but the pandemic does not explain the nationalisation of social care, the determination to plough ahead with HS2, the green levies or the reluctance to deregulate.
This week, to pluck a random example, it was announced that companies should give at least 40 per cent of board seats to women. There was a time when Conservatives saw the hiring policies of corporations as a matter for shareholders, not governments.
I complained often on this page about Johnson’s determination to spend money as if Britain still had the half trillion pounds it burned through during the lockdowns. But, in February, things began to change. A new Downing Street policy team was put in place, determined to make use of each of the hundred-odd weeks left in this Parliament. It made itself felt almost at once.
Over the past two months, the fracking moratorium has been lifted and Channel 4 marked for privatisation. Britain is set to become the first Western state to sign a trade agreement with India – which will in time become a larger market than the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg is culling EU regulations.
Two years on, we are finally exercising some of our Brexit freedoms. We are admitting more workers from Commonwealth countries, but cracking down on illicit entrants.
The Rwanda plan is a workable solution to the Channel boats crisis. After all, an asylum seeker is trying to get out of a particular country, not in to a particular country. There are even signs that, following two years of EU obstreperousness, we will act unilaterally to correct the Northern Ireland Protocol.
You might not like these things, of course. You might want to vote for someone else. That is your right. But, precisely for that reason, MPs should think long and hard before usurping it.
Losing a war, abandoning core principles or, come to that, deceiving Parliament – all these things might justify a putsch. But being in the vicinity of cake? Come off it.
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This article was first published in the Telegraph.
Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street