Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long exhibited a particular skill at getting cheekily evasive. He has a gift for one-liners that take off at a tangent from the question confronting him, taking himself out of trouble with them. He has summoned the same talent faced now with questions over a party held at 10 Downing Street last year when the nation was in lockdown and barred from holding such events. But he has struggled to talk himself out of this one.
The party of sorts – and it is clear there was one despite denials from Boris Johnson – has possibly provoked more anger than any other Christmas party Britain has ever known. That a party attended by dozens was held at the Prime Minister’s residence when he was telling the nation that no more than two people from different households should meet indoors has come across as insulting to people, and far from winning support from people, and their votes.
Boris Johnson was not at the party but it’s looking bad enough for him that he appears to have allowed it to take place, and is now covering it up.
The party was first reported by the Daily Mirror. It was then independently reported by the BBC. On Tuesday this week, ITV broadcast a video clip from a mock press conference at Downing Street showing how they would manage the news if reports of the party were to be leaked to the media, as they were just ahead of Christmas this year.
The substantive leaks pouring progressively out point to a very senior member of the Prime Minister’s establishment turning against him. To add to the Prime Minister’s growing number of enemies in the media and within his own party, to say nothing of the Labour opposition, Boris Johnson is dealing with enemies lurking in his own backyard.
That such enemies abound has been clear since the fallout earlier with his former special adviser Dominic Cummings. It emerged through that mess that Cummings, and several others in his team, were feeling more than a little resistant to Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie Symonds, former head of communications in the Conservative Party. No doubt Boris Johnson has had more than a little advice from her on ways of dealing with the current media storm.
For the second week Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer confronted Boris Johnson with reports of the party during Question Hour in Parliament. Boris Johnson slipped out through the oldest loophole of all – offering an apology over the video showing the mock press conference over the party, and ordering an inquiry – while still denying that a party took place.
So now an inquiry will determine whether rules were broken. To that extent, Boris Johnson has gained time, but this is still a very public climbdown from his breezy boasts earlier that no rules were broken. The change has come through a media leak that confronted him, not through the government’s own initiative in exposing and investigating the truth about that party.
Boris Johnson chose his words carefully. Members of bereaved family groups had said they had been “sickened” by the video showing staff joking about the lockdown and social distancing when people were dying around the country. Now Boris Johnson says he is “sickened” by the video. He is clearly nervous about more leaks from where that one came from.
Boris Johnson has again sought to shift the focus onto Christmas this year with advice to be cautious. He has still not issued any advisory against Christmas parties this year, though many office parties have been cancelled despite the government’s refusal to issue an advisory. Depending on the course that Omicron charts, this decision may come back to haunt the government around Christmas this year.
Omicron numbers are doubling every couple of days. But that is by way of the recorded numbers. Given the time lag between the spread and the reporting, the strain is believed by many scientists to have spread beyond control already.
Last year the government was late in ordering a lockdown, and thousands died as a result of that delay. Boris Johnson’s government has inexplicably got away lightly over that. But the virus continues to afflict his government. He survived the virus personally, but may not politically.