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The Party’s Over and the Joke’s On Us: Johnson and the Integrity Deficit

The scandal of the Downing Street Christmas parties has exposed something important about the Prime Minister and his appeal, says Jonathan Lis

Mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2009. Photo: Geoff Caddick/PA Images/Alamy

The Party’s Over & the Joke’s On UsBoris Johnson and the Integrity Deficit

The scandal of the Downing Street Christmas parties has exposed something important about the Prime Minister and his appeal, says Jonathan Lis

In the two-and-a-half years of his premiership, the scandals have bounced off Boris Johnson without even leaving a scratch.

He unlawfully prorogued Parliament. He lied, unendingly, about the deal he signed with the EU, then moved to break international law by reneging on it. He placed his own political position above people’s lives as a pandemic raged through the country, causing tens of thousands of needless deaths.

Previous prime ministers, capable of a basic level of shame, would have resigned or been dispatched. Johnson carried on unscathed.

It seems incredible, then, that he should have been brought to the brink by a Christmas party. Johnson, after all, has built his career on fun. Revelry in Downing Street could hardly be more on-brand. And yet, this time, he seems to have pushed his luck.

What does this story tell us about how we are governed?


The first element is the Government’s total disregard for objective truth – until it can no longer avoid it.

For the first week of the scandal about last year’s Downing Street Christmas party – while the rest of the country was having restrictions imposed on it – the Prime Minister and his colleagues did everything they could to gaslight the public. This was not a story: there was no party; all rules were followed.

In this, much of the media was complicit. Twitter was alight, and a report on the party was BBC News’ most watched video. But, outside the Mirror newspaper, which broke the story and doggedly pursued it, it all but faded from view in the print media. Like so many other scandals, journalists looked, gently prodded, then ignored it.

From the start, this was bizarre. Allegations of a Christmas party in Downing Street were far more serious than anything Dominic Cummings had done during the first lockdown. He was a ministerial advisor who had broken the rules to ensure childcare and taken a day out. This was the Prime Minister sanctioning or turning a blind eye to a potential super-spreader event in his own house – and then lying about it.

Downing Street’s initial response compounded the offence, in both senses of the word. For days, there was one single line: “all guidance was followed completely”. Johnson stuck to that wording at Prime Minister’s Questions and refused to expand on it – declaring that Labour was “playing politics and asking frivolous questions”.

For days, hapless subordinates went on the airwaves to deny knowledge of a party, while expressing full certainty about what hadn’t taken place there.

Naturally, the law-and-order Home Secretary – who spent more than a year condemning the selfishness and “irresponsible behaviour” of rule-breakers – remained silent. The Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse, told the BBC that he had asked if there was an event, didn’t know if there was an event, and was certain no rules had been broken at any event.

Gaslighting requires some confidence that the person will believe the false evidence being presented as fact. This was simply insulting.

A Question of Power

If it hadn’t been for the now infamous video, it would have ended there. But, of course, that revelation last Tuesday changed everything. Millions of people could now see Downing Street staffers openly laughing about the party and debating how they would lie about it to journalists.

The crisis intensified – and yet Downing Street clung to its Plan A. Normally, people lie, deny and dissemble until they get caught. The country’s leaders got found out and then ploughed on.

The response to the crisis was even worse than the build-up to it. Boris Johnson continued to deny that there was any rule-breaking, even as he announced an investigation into it – and as the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, asked: why did a civil servant need to investigate whether something happened when millions of people had watched a video confirming it?

The contempt manifests itself, too, in the double standards.

Some figures ludicrously suggested that the police could or should not investigate the party because it was retrospective – even though numerous prosecutions for the same offence at the same time are proceeding through the courts right now. This offence was, indeed, worse: the Downing Street soirée was not an impromptu student house party. How could it be in the public interest to prosecute some people for breaking the rules, but not the people who actually made them?

Then there is the Prime Minister himself. It is not just that his director of communications attended the party and led the media response to it, almost certainly implying that Johnson knew about it and therefore lied to Parliament. It is that Johnson himself broke the rules.

The photograph revealed over the weekend shows the Prime Minister leading a quiz – that is, socialising – with people not in his household. The Sky News journalist Kay Burley was suspended for six months for doing exactly the same thing. Is a journalist really to be held to a higher standard when it comes to following the law than the Prime Minister who initiated it?

This is, at its heart, about power. People are only entitled to break rules if those who police the rules let them.

The Metropolitan Police has refused to investigate the wrongdoing, even in the face of video and photographic evidence, and as evidence of further parties has emerged. In turn, its Commissioner, Cressida Dick, retains the support of politicians no matter how many calamities she oversees.

This is a network of mutual patronage and sustainment. But, in other countries, sitting or recently-departed leaders are routinely investigated by police forces. It is not because those countries are more corrupt.

Corruption – and Boris Johnson

Ultimately, corruption is where this story leads.

The renewed interest in recent days in ‘Wallpapergate’ – another long-running saga about whether Boris Johnson appeared to have lied to his standards investigator, Lord Geidt, about how much he knew about the donor paying for his Downing Street flat refurbishment and when – dovetails neatly with the Christmas party. Johnson will break any law he likes if he thinks he will get away with it.

That corruption is reflected in the only Labour attack line of recent years to have genuinely cut through: “One rule for us and another for them.”

But this scandal has exposed something important about Johnson and his appeal.

The Prime Minister is, self-evidently, a joke: it is one that he has cultivated himself over many years. This joke is to be laughed with rather than at, and the people who vote for him know they are in on it. But now the joke has changed – it has, in effect, become the voters themselves. It is no longer a question of whether we laugh with or at Johnson. Johnson is laughing at us – and 170,000 dead people.

One of the Prime Minister’s many problems is that he believes himself to be exceptionally clever and, specifically, much cleverer than those around him. That has served him well when he uses that cleverness – or perception of it – to play-act the fool. It communicates, to some people, reassurance and inclusion.

By contrast, his new type of cleverness does something entirely different. It is not based in bonhomie but arrogance; not about collective identification but individual entitlement. In short, this cleverness explicitly requires other people to be stupid: stupid for following rules, stupid for believing Johnson cared about them, stupid for thinking laws applied equally and universally.

Everyone likes to be included in a joke; nobody likes to be told that they are fools.

There can be almost no one who truly believes that Boris Johnson didn’t break the rules or know that they were being broken. Everyone knows that he is lying and scrambling to save his own skin.

That matters. This story has cut through because it directly touches on the recent lived experience of every person living in this country. All of us remember what life was like last December. All of us have been touched in some way by the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns.

It matters, too, because this crisis is not yet over. Ironically, Johnson alluded to this problem himself at the second Prime Minister’s Questions since the incident came to light: “It is very sad,” he said, “that when the public need to hear clarity from their officials and from politicians, the opposition parties are trying to muddy the waters about events, or non-events, of a year ago.” Needless to say, the only people who have muddied the water are ministers – and the person least able to offer clarity now is Johnson.

In the end, this goes beyond him. Severely weakened, the Prime Minister now seems unlikely to last the year, let alone the rest of the electoral cycle. But he leaves behind a legacy of contempt for the public, debasement of discourse, and naked cynicism in public life.

And yet, even in this, we may divine something positive. This story resonated for a reason. Probity matters. Integrity matters. Despite all appearances to the contrary in recent years, the truth still holds value. Boris Johnson’s aversion to all three has been his greatest strength. It was always going to prove too strong for him in the end.

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