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Boris Johnson will survive Partygate, but that doesn’t rule

The week after the April Fool’s Day joke, I’m usually still reeling from the horrible pranks my family pulls on me. But this year I feel my relatives have been outdone by the pranksters who run the country and the daily satire of British politics.

Last week, 20 government workers were fined by police for attending lockdown parties. One was the head of the “Decency and Ethics” department. Another headed the Covid task force that worked out the coronavirus restrictions. You couldn’t invent it. Except that they do it all the time. The Prime Minister, we are now told, was given false information by staff about whether parties were being held. So he did not mislead Parliament, although he himself took part in some events.

I can accept that maybe some of those gatherings were just colleagues opening a bottle after working together all day. Certainly, Whitehall felt like an island in a hurricane in the pandemic. What I cannot endure, however, are pious sermons urging us to ignore incidents involving karaoke machines and drunken brawls because, according to Jacob Rees-Mogg, this is “not the most important problem in the world” and the Covid rules are “unkind and inhuman”. Yes they were – which is why the public is still angry that those who imposed them broke them.

Rees-Mogg is the High Priest of this government, which is regularly “cut down” by Number 10 while actually carrying out their orders. To ask us not to become puritanical is stunning hypocrisy from a government that has imposed the most draconian restrictions on freedom in peacetime. Its interior minister urged people to call the police if they saw neighbors breaking the rules. His spokesman was visibly horrified when aides asked him what to say if someone found out about the Downing Street Christmas party. Which is now acting like it doesn’t matter because the Prime Minister apparently wasn’t in charge.

Almost everywhere you look the hokey-kokey of fudge and doublespeak goes on. Boris Johnson attacks P&O Ferries for laying off workers – but drops the labor law that could have filled the loophole that made it legal. He promises to cut taxes while raising taxes and spending to near-unprecedented levels. He talks about freedom of speech while legislating against protest. He takes a stance on gay conversion therapy and then changes in a day.

The global pandemic has thrown everyone off course. But a year on from the laudable launch of the vaccine, no one knows what this government is for. The privatization of Channel 4 is a side issue at best; as well as ID cards for voters. The effects of drift are corrosive. Officials are demoralized and no longer know what their superiors want or when they will next change their mind. Increasingly disillusioned, Conservative colleagues are abstaining, leaving the unelected Lords to inflict the most defeats of any government since 1975. One investor recently told me he was sick of being asked to lift his disbelief. Inconsistent policies undermine business confidence.

Unkind souls might call Rees-Mogg’s new title of Minister of State for Brexit Options a piece of Orwellian duplicity. But most of us actually want the government to make Brexit a success. In fact, we assumed this would be its animating power. Instead, we are faced with a smorgasbord of policies that are confusing unless you view them through the lens of Operation Save Big Dog: the endless urge to shore up Boris Johnson.

Large-scale jokes told by the prime minister at a recent dinner for MPs were taken as evidence of his growing confidence that he will survive. That is not completely right. He is buoyed by positive coverage of his efforts in Ukraine and the falling popularity of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has been accused of not doing enough for the poor while his wife enjoys favorable tax status as a non-Dom. But defiance masks the knowledge that he is deeply distrusted.

Had Sue Gray’s report on the Downing Street parties in February been published, Conservative MPs would probably have garnered enough signatories to call a vote of no confidence. The threat has receded because the Gray report was delayed by the Metropolitan Police’s eleventh hour decision to investigate and is now conveniently not expected before the local elections in May. Although the Conservatives expect to do poorly in this election, particularly in London where they could even lose flagship Wandsworth, Johnson’s allies will pass this off as a medium-term bump.

Johnson will survive Partygate. His co-workers believe he probably won’t even get a fine. But the real implication of all this is that a leader elected by an 80-seat majority, who could use that power for almost anything, is now held hostage by his own MPs. Since February, Downing Street has brought in a chief of staff and a head of policy, both MPs, and launched a charm offensive within the party, meaning, one MP told me: ‘You can get almost anything as long as you’re the last person who speaks to him”. Hence the wars on the BBC and Channel 4, which are old Tory chestnuts. Hence the odd absence of onshore wind turbines in the new energy strategy and the change of heart in conversion therapy after a backlash.

There’s nothing wrong with listening to the faction. But you can’t always please everyone. If governing means voting, a prime minister who constantly evades governing does not really govern. In the meantime, he continues to think we’re all fools.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/0d7c93ad-8640-4a0a-b84f-a3267319f8bc Boris Johnson will survive Partygate, but that doesn’t rule

Adam Bradshaw

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