Where are the Partygate protests?

As the fabric of democracy erodes before our eyes, why are so few of us taking to the streets?

February 05, 2022
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A flash mob of partying Boris Johnsons on 14th January—one of the few protests so far. Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

April last year was the coldest since 1922. On the first Sunday of the month, as tentative snowflakes swirled overhead, I sat huddled in blankets in a south London park with five of my hardiest friends, trying valiantly to celebrate my birthday. Despite their attempts to be cheerful, it was hard to ignore the sound of chattering teeth, our fingers cramped and stiff as we speared pieces of birthday cake with our forks. In the evening, a video call with my family awaited me—this was the second year they had relayed their birthday wishes to me over zoom.

In June 2020, at the height of lockdown, Boris Johnson—who made the rules I had been steadfastly following on both of my downbeat birthdays—allegedly celebrated his in a rather different manner. He was reportedly indoors, with up to 30 guests and—I can only imagine, though reports have been inconsistent—a considerably better cake. The birthday party is just one of a list of Downing Street parties under investigation by the Metropolitan Police. As Sue Gray wrote in her heavily constrained Cabinet Office report, the gatherings “represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” Gray was unable to publish her report in full as the Met launched its investigation into a number of the parties on 25th January—at a time so convenient for Johnson that the leader of the Westminster Scottish National Party, Ian Blackford said it looked like a “stitch-up.”

As Rachel Sylvester wrote in her recent column for Prospect, “on one level” the parties are “utterly trivial”—in fact they pale in comparison to the blunders made early on in the pandemic: missed COBRA meetings, cavalier delays to lockdown and the discharge of elderly patients to care homes. Yet Partygate violates a fundamental constitutional principle—one which demands that those who make the rules also have to follow them, that nobody is rich, powerful or important enough to be above the law. The regulations under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and the Coronavirus Act 2020 impacted every aspect of our lives, from our family lives to our sex lives, from our right to protest to our freedom to travel. These were extraordinary powers for any government and our constitution demands they be treated as such. As Gray wrote in her report: “when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behavior surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify.” By last December, 118, 963 fines were issued by police in England and Wales for breaching covid regulations. Hypocrisy, while always corrosive, in this case actually undermined the constitutional legitimacy of the government, so antithetical was it to the rule of law.

And yet, speaking to the House of Commons on the 25th January, the day the police investigation was launched, veteran Conservative MP Edward Leigh called for “a sense of proportion.” It is concerning that we appear to have heeded him. While there were some initial protests when the Partygate revelations emerged—including a flash mob of Boris Johnson impersonators outside No 10—mass demonstrations failed to materialise. Given a snap poll by YouGov found that 63 per cent of Britons think Johnson should resign, this is surprising.

There have been many major protests in the UK in recent years: hundreds of thousands of people attended the People’s Vote March against Brexit in 2019 and in 2020 more than 200,000 people took part in protests after the murder of George Floyd. Smaller-scale protests have also occurred: when Johnson prorogued parliament in 2019, I was one of thousands of protestors who marched through central London, bringing it to a standstill. In March 2021, after Sarah Everard’s murder, organisers of the Reclaim These Streets vigil were advised to cancel it by the police due to coronavirus legislation. Thousands of us gathered on Clapham Common regardless, in an event organised by Sisters Uncut, steadfast in our right to assemble, even when police officers began tackling women to the ground.

So why are we not taking to the streets over a prime minister who has undermined the very fundamentals of our democracy? Perhaps we are exhausted by the endless waves of the pandemic, and the normalisation of the erosion of standards in public life. After a steady drip of scandals that Johnson has survived: the prorogation, the Downing Street wallpaper investigation, the Owen Patterson affair, any hope for accountability feels lost. But as more reports emerge of Conservative MPs handing in their letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee—former minister Nick Gibb is the latest to publicly do so—Johnson’s grip looks shakier and shakier. An outpouring of public anger could show the Conservative backbenchers that actions must have consequences. Now is the moment for us to protest; our democracy depends on it.