Boris Johnson: “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry If I Want to, Lie If I Want To”

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

Boris “BoJo” Johnson is long known to have form as a party animal, dating back to his student days at Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, a drinking and dining society notorious for trashing restaurants, pelting waiters with food, holding wild parties, and burning £50 notes in front of homeless persons.

Last Christmas the UK was in a government-ordained second pandemic lockdown, during which all indoor social gatherings were prohibited (though on 16 December indoor gatherings confined to household bubbles were permitted).

At the end of last month the Daily Mirror newspaper revealed that BoJo’s prime ministerial residence at Downing Street was the venue for 2 parties in the lead-up to Christmas 2020, the lockdown notwithstanding,

The first was on 27 November, when a party was held for the departing senior staffer Cleo Watson, at which BoJo gave a speech.

A second Downing Street party was held on 18 December, where there was booze, food, music, party games, a Christmas quiz, novelty Christmas sweaters, and a secret Santa. The party is reported to have gone on until 2am. That day nearly 600 Brits were dying of Covid.

Covid vaccinations began in the UK on 8 December 2020, so no one at the first party would have been vaccinated, while anyone vaccinated at the second party would only have received a first dose.

The Mirror reports that “40 or 50” people were packed into a medium-sized room for both events.

Another staff Christmas party was held at the Department of Education on 10 December, while schools were struggling to deal with surging Covid infections and the lockdown’s severe disruption of the teaching of students.

The Guardian mentions other Tory parties being held in the festive season of 2020, and the rightwing Daily Telegraph says that the Tories held “up to seven parties” during last year’s Christmas lockdown, including one described as “rowdy” and “raucous” at the Tory party HQ.

True to the adage that attempts at covering-up are always potentially more hazardous to perpetrators than the original deeds themselves, BoJo— who can’t avoid smirking and looking shifty-eyed when he is “up to something”, as if forever ensnared in an unending loop of juvenile mischief and troublemaking — found ways to dig himself into an almighty hole once the Mirror made its disclosures. This is the timeline of how BoJo and his colleagues have responded to media coverage of the parties:

30 November:  the Daily Mirror’s revelations

1 December: BoJo is pressed on the Mirror’s claims during Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster. He failed three times to deny that the shindigs were held at Downing Street when asked to do so by the opposition leader Keir Starmer. BoJ then said that “all guidance was followed completely”. His spokesperson said later that Downing Street “did not recognize” the events as reported.

5 December: The Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab admitted that a Downing Street party just before Christmas last year would have been in breach of the pandemic restrictions at the time. Raab, who is also Justice Secretary, said that the reports were based on “unsubstantiated claims all on the basis of anonymous sources”, before saying that if they were correct, then there would have been a breach of the rules.

8 December: Leaked video emerged of BoJo’s spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, in what looked like a mock press conference, joking about a “business meeting” in which there was “definitely no social distancing”. During Prime Minister’s Questions BoJo tells MPs that he was “furious” about the video and announced an investigation into the Christmas party claims to be conducted by Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and the top civil servant in the UK government. Which only begs the question: why investigate something that does not exist?  BoJo said he had been “assured repeatedly” that no party took place and no Covid restrictions were breached. BoJo apologized for the leaked video and promised that there would be “disciplinary action for those involved”. Stratton later resigned from her position. Which again begs the question why did she have to resign over a non-existent event?

9th December: Johnson announced that his wife, Carrie, gave birth to a baby girl that day.

10 December: No. 10 Downing Street cancelled its Christmas party this year because of concerns over the omicron variant. Given the level of public anger at last year’s party/non-party, the party animals at no. 10 really had no alternative.

12 December: the Daily Mirror’s reported that BoJo hosted a Christmas quiz at no. 10 Downing Street on 15 December last year. At the time people in London, under tier 2 restrictions, were barred from any social interaction between households. Official guidance stipulated: “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”. BoJo was pictured sitting underneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher as he read out questions.

13 December: the government’s fallback Covid Plan B came into effect. It requires that everyone who can should work from home, but office parties and school nativity plays can go ahead. Vaccine passports will be required for entry into big venues, but not masks are required in pubs and restaurants. So, a typical mixed message from BoJo— stay away from work, but those vaccinated can head out to a night club or Christmas party later in the day. The government policy asymmetry on gatherings between 2020 and 2021 has been pointed out on social media. Last year those wanting a Christmas party had to mask it as a work meeting. This year, those wanting to hold a work meeting will have to claim it’s a Christmas party.

These bizarre epistemological contortions have plunged BoJo and the Tories into an Alice in Wonderland world– the Downing Street Christmas party did not happen; but if it did (which it most certainly didn’t), then no rules were broken because all regulations were followed while the party didn’t happen.

As Jefferson Airplane said in their lyric addressed to the hookah-smoking caterpillar: “Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know”.

In addition to being a chronic liar and an over-promoted charlatan, BoJo’s other standout quality is cowardice. Day after day, his colleagues, some decidedly on the junior side, are sent out to face journalists on media rounds, as well as being made to respond to questions in parliament that should really be answered by BoJo himself.

Given the impossible task of defending their boss’s lies, U-turns, and evasions, they are easy quarry for seasoned radio and TV interviewers. The visible rabbit-in-the headlights looks, swiveling eyeballs, nervous tics, and so on, all these certify that BoJo views these humiliated colleagues as disposable and sacrificial objects.

The Tory response to Partygate is two-pronged.

First, at all costs go to a thesaurus to find alternative terms for “party”, which must never be mentioned.

The Tory Christmas shindig is thus referred to as a “gathering”, an afterwork “winding down”, a “celebration” (for a departing colleague), and so forth.

Second, employ diversionary tactics to steer attention away from the Christmas parties and the shambolic Tory response to criticism over the party.

Unfortunately for BoJo, the topic of pandemic restrictions divides his MPs. He has bungled this issue repeatedly in the past, leading to accusations that he views his MPs as mere “lobby fodder”, “pawns”, “puppets”, and so on.

The significant libertarian group in the Tory party regard pandemic restrictions as an abridgement of their personal liberties.

In addition to his demonstrable ineptitude, BoJo’s serious mishandling of the pandemic is due in large part to his looking over his shoulder to see how this unruly group is likely to respond to his decisions, and softening them accordingly.

The result has been a series of incomplete measures, implemented too slowly, which has resulted in Europe’s worst Covid incidence rate, with over 10.4 million cases, amounting to approximately 15,701 cases per 100,000 population.

BoJo’s credibility and authority have been severely undermined as a result of Partygate, and he may lack support from his own party if he tries to bring these recalcitrant and restive libertarian colleagues to heel. He’ll then have to rely on Labour and the other opposition parties to get the necessary votes in parliament. Labour has announced that it will support him if such a vote took place.

BoJo has announced that he will take some time off for paternity leave, in order to spend time with his new child.

This is laudable in itself, but BoJo has abandoned wives, mistresses, and children in the past, and indeed would be a strong contender for the title of the UK’s #1Deadbeat Dad if such a competition were to be held.

The limelight has shone mercilessly on him for the past 2 weeks, and BoJo’s paternity leave enables him to duck out of it, at least for a while.

Meanwhile, the refrain “One law for them, and another for the rest of us” is all over the Ukanian media, including the pro-Tory gutter press.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.