Conservatives’ ‘Partygate’ Impunity for Johnson Shows the Entire British Constitution is Now At Stake
If the governing party proves that those in power can get away with anything, the essential contract between leaders and their people will be ruptured for good, says Jonathan Lis
Four months after the story of lockdown parties in Whitehall first exploded, two months after Sue Gray’s initial summary of the events, and seven weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suspended much of Britain’s everyday politics, we have at least one definitive answer: at this country’s most dangerous moment since the Second World War, the Prime Minister broke the law he said was there to save people’s lives.
It was the most significant law of his premiership, which he insisted that people must follow, and he himself had no interest in doing so.
Having been fined by the Metropolitan Police for attending a gathering for his birthday in June 2020, Boris Johnson now becomes the first British Prime Minister to receive a criminal sanction in office. There is every possibility that he will receive more fines for larger and more substantial gatherings.
The facts on their own are stark enough. In normal times, they could easily force a sufficient number of Conservative MPs to remove the Prime Minister from office. But these are not normal times. And yet, the problem is that Johnson is facing no normal consequences – and this is the greatest danger.
The failure of the British political system to respond to Johnson’s transgressions could prove more damaging than the initial offence. What began as the moral disgrace of one man, could now be the death spiral of a national constitution.
Arrogance and Luck
Our extraordinary political situation is neatly encapsulated by a new Savanta ComRes poll, which reports that 61% of voters believe Boris Johnson should resign, with only 10% thinking that he will. The public, in other words, has the exact measure of the man. His moral and public obligation is in direct opposition with his personal lack of shame.
As so often with this Prime Minister, it is difficult to know which is worse: the fact that he thinks he can get away with anything, or the fact that he actually can. Neither should be possible.
Just as the fine demonstrates that nobody is above the law, nobody should be above basic standards in public life. Any rules of fairness and decency dictate that the Prime Minister must go – not simply because the man responsible for creating and upholding the law has been found to have broken it, but because of what that law was.
Contrary to the preposterous arguments of Conservative backbenchers, the fine was not on the level of a parking or speeding ticket. These were unique peacetime regulations to combat a once-in-a-century pandemic killing thousands of people. By prohibiting unnecessary gatherings, the laws were designed to save lives. They formed the sum total of the Government’s public messaging for more than a year.
These laws dominated every bit of our lives until barely a year ago. The ban on two people from different households meeting indoors only ended in May. It is inconceivable that Johnson did not know that a birthday party – or the other gatherings he attended – would be illegal. He was lying then and he is lying now.
This is not simply a question of law but moral authority. Millions of people suffered lifelong trauma in order to follow Johnson’s rules – staying away from relatives who later died, curbing funerals, eschewing personal contact and touch over long months of isolation. These were not simply written laws but personal sacrifices – and the Prime Minister considered himself exempt from both.
As ever, Johnson has been incredibly lucky. If this fine had been announced two months ago he could easily be facing a no-confidence vote. But his luck runs deeper still: if these stories had emerged at the time, he could not have survived the wave of public anger.
This also speaks to Johnson’s arrogance. The party for which he has been fined took place three weeks after Dominic Cummings’s Barnard Castle revelations and dramatic press conference in the Downing Street rose garden. The public mood was unmistakeable. People were enraged that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor had broken the rules by travelling across the country during lockdown and then taking a brief leisure trip to ‘test his eyesight’.
Johnson must have known how the public would react to something much more serious and dangerous – hosting family and colleagues indoors to mark a social occasion. But he did it anyway and continued to. He did not, does not, and will not care.
A Toxic Party
This, of course, goes far beyond Boris Johnson. It is only possible for him to exercise such naked entitlement thanks to his backbenchers. Indeed, if it was simply a case of one toxic narcissist, the situation would be swiftly resolved. The real problem is a toxic party and political culture.
Since the fines issued to the Prime Minister – and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – were announced, Conservative MPs have been scrambling to debase themselves for a man who would sacrifice any one of them.
We have heard that it was ‘only cake’; that the gathering only lasted 10 minutes; that Johnson didn’t know the party was illegal; that there was ‘no malice’ involved. In one of the most egregious defences, Michael Fabricant declared that nurses and teachers had done the same.
These people know that all of this is irrelevant. Ignorance and ‘lack of malice’ do not make a crime legal – as the party of ‘law and order’ has made clear for decades.
Perhaps the most offensive element has been to invoke the war in Ukraine.
Numerous backbenchers have declared that they could not possibly remove the Prime Minister at a time of war. Not only is this a reprehensible defence – using the suffering of the Ukrainian people as a shield – but it is also a lie. Any candidate for Prime Minister would continue the same policy and few people in Kyiv would even notice. It will have no impact on Vladimir Putin’s decision-making. The people of France are electing a new president right now.
For most of Johnson’s defenders, this is nothing to do with Ukraine. They decided long ago that the Prime Minister can do whatever he likes, provided that he stands the best chance of retaining their seats for them. Their motivation is not rooted in ethics but a raw calculation of self-interest.
For the first time in modern history, both the Prime Minister and his MPs are wilfully obstructing the national interest in order to save their careers.
A Constitution in Crisis
In some ways, the invocation of Ukraine highlighted something important. The backbencher Sir Roger Gale, a fierce critic of Boris Johnson, declared that “now is… not the moment to give… Putin the comfort of destabilising the Government of the country… leading the coalition in support of Ukraine”.
Gale’s conclusions are wrong: removing Johnson would not destabilise the Government but almost certainly strengthen it. A new Prime Minister, free of the scandal of lockdown parties, would command far greater moral authority both here and abroad.
Moreover, Britain is not at war and Johnson is no kind of war leader. He has neither the judgement nor the integrity to take decisions affecting other people. If the situation did deteriorate, he would be the least suitable candidate to command the response.
More significantly, however, this is about values. Changing leaders is the hallmark of a democracy – it is what separates functioning democracies from purely nominal ones. It is unthinkable that Putin might leave office through democratic means. It should be reasonable to expect that Johnson might.
If the Conservative Party is really interested in drawing a distinction with Putin, it should consider its own actions. Democracy means holding power to account and that necessitates following democratic norms. The worst way to showcase Britain’s values is to grant its leaders freedom from moral and political consequences. The only thing that might really give Putin ‘comfort’, is showing him that our country, too, considers democracy a sham.
The Conservatives have, in effect, granted Boris Johnson total constitutional impunity. At his party’s discretion, the Prime Minister is free to commit any crime, or tell any number of lies to Parliament, and remain in office. There is no individual or independent institution that can force him from power. If it suits Tory backbenchers, he stays – enabling political patronage and electoral success to trump the demands of moral probity and standards in public life.
There is no longer any credible oversight of Johnson’s actions. He is the ultimate arbiter and judge of the rule-book governing his conduct. If an advisor determines that he has broken the Ministerial Code – a resigning offence – it is the Prime Minister himself who has the discretion of responding. This charming, period-drama constitution of old school ties and gentlemen’s conventions in fact represents carte blanche for all-pervasive corruption, in which one individual can fully capture the levers of state without any checks or balances.
The ramifications of this are immense. If the Prime Minister doesn’t know the law and cannot be entrusted to follow it, how can anyone? What is the point of the Ministerial Code if not to police the conduct of the most senior minister? If neither basic standards nor accountability apply to the person at the very top, how can the public have any faith in its leaders or institutions? It is hard to imagine anything more corrosive to the body politic.
This is a profoundly dangerous moment for our democracy; one which goes far beyond one grubby narcissist. If the Conservatives prove – and the public sees with its own eyes – that those in power can get away with anything, the essential contract between leaders and the people they govern will be ruptured for good.
This was not about birthday cake then and it is not about Ukraine now. Britain’s entire constitution is at stake.