It was meant to be time to reflect. The eager arms of a new pandemic were enfolding a society with asphyxiating, lethal effect. Public health authorities advocated various measures: social distancing, limited contact between family and friends, limited mobility. No grand booze-ups. No large parties. No bonking, except within dispensations of intimacy and various “bubble” arrangements. Certainly, no orgies.
This was what Britain was told by the government of Boris Johnson, a man famed for his rutting proclivities, to behave, huddle and battle SARS-Cov-2, and its disease, COVID-19. But the manner he, and his officials, have done so have shown the country’s citizenry that Johnson’s Law on Illegal Covid Gatherings is in full swing, a glorious exemption that few can partake in.
There was Prime Minister Johnson himself gleefully shaking the hands of infected patients, thereby infecting himself despite telling others not to shake hands. There was the grasping, emotion starved canoodling of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose amorous (and camera captured) embrace with senior aide Gina Coladangelo jarred with public health orders.
And who can forget the conduct of former special advisor and éminence grise to Johnson, Dominic Cummings, contemptuous of lockdown regulations in jaunting off to Durham, and then to Barnard Castle. His reasons for doing so – family safety, testing his eyesight – were riddled with goodly inconsistency and glaring deceits. But the statement was unmistakable: There is one law for subjects, and another for rulers.
All of this provided decent straw for the bricks that made up the next, sodding round robin of scandals. Again, they involved a breach of lockdown rules. Again, they featured government officials and advisors. The time for the first reported scandal: December 18, 2020. According to the Mirror, a Christmas Party took place at 10 Downing Street when all indoor social and household mixing was banned and punishable with fines of £10,000.
The official guidance from the time bears repeating: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.” The Downing Street gathering allegedly involved a Secret Santa, flowing wine, a quiz and numbered somewhere between 50 to 60 people.
Johnson, and some of his aides, kept matters textbook. Denying and dissembling, the hope was that visual evidence of such a gathering (or gatherings) would be hard to find. “I can tell you that guidelines were followed at all times,” an adamant Johnson insisted. “I’ve satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.”
Then ITV released a clip showing a former spokesperson for Johnson, Allegra Stratton, chuckling about the December 18 party in answering questions posed during a mock press conference with colleagues. Stratton is found giggling as prime ministerial advisor Ed Oldfield poses the question: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?” Stratton laughs, replying that she “went home.”
Then comes an exchange about Johnson’s views about such gatherings. “Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?” asks Oldfield. Stratton, all mirth, replies, “What’s the answer?” The reaction from Oldfield: “I don’t know!”
Another staffer chimes in with a remark that, “It wasn’t a party … it was cheese and wine.” Stratton’s response: “Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting.” There is laughter all around, punctuated by another comment: “No! … I was joking!”
In cataracts of tears, Stratton, the sacrificial villain, chose to resign once the video itself went viral. “My remarks seemed to make light of rules, that people were doing everything to obey. That was never my intention.” She promised that she would eternally “regret those remarks”, forgetting that regret is only ever skin deep and temporary for a member of Johnson’s staff.
Others preferred to excuse the whole affair in the tried legal fashion of exemptions. 10 Downing Street was a specially carved space, freed of those constraints called rules and regulations. This was certainly the opinion of barrister Steven Barrett, who gave the tyrant’s excuse in claiming that “the regulations almost certainly never applied to No. 10 anyway.”
Charles Holland, another learned friend in the law, was not convinced. While admitting that there was a “Crown exemption rule”, the “restrictions on gatherings” provision in the regulations were “restrictions that applied to individuals wherever they were, including on Crown land.”
The Mirror followed up with grainy photographic snatches showing Johnson personally overseeing a Zoom pub quiz on December 15, 2020, all taking place in front of the watchful gaze of Margaret Thatcher’s portrait. The paper delighted in telling readers that “many staff huddled by computers, conferring on questions and knocking back fizz, wine and beer from a local Tesco Metro.” Johnson himself was flanked by two staff members.
In one room, four teams, each made up of six people, congregated. As is traditional in such games, team names were allocated in some vague stab at wit. In the spirit of the times, one included “The 6 Masketeers”.
While people had been encouraged to play the quiz from their home quarters, others remained in the office, being warned that they should “go out the back” of the building lest they be spotted.
The Mirror was on a roll of exposure, adding more misery to the pandemic party goers by revealing that Tory headquarters had, on December 14 the previous year, witnessed a grand shindig. Organised by the team of London mayoral aspirant Shaun Bailey, a spokesman admitted that, “This was a serious error of judgment and we fully accept that a gathering like this at that time was wrong and we apologise unreservedly.” Bailey subsequently resigned his place as committee chair in the London Assembly.
In typically unspeakable fashion, the Prime Minister, still denying that any wrongdoing took place, has resorted to a “parties probe” led by senior civil servant Simon Case. Such probes are internal, scrubbing affairs and almost never involve the prying eyes of the police. “Of course all that must be properly got into and you will be hearing from the cabinet secretary about it all.” Little will come of it, least of any prosecutions and convictions. That is the lesson of Johnson’s Law.