Cava, cake and the crumbling of a constitution

The quirks of 21st century political process could let Boris Johnson off the hook—and doom political responsibility in Britain

May 25, 2022
article header image
The prime minister at Lee Cain’s leaving drinks

Just imagine if everything had come out at once, in the immediate aftermath of Pippa Crerar’s exclusive reports about the Downing Street parties and the prime minister’s initial “nothing to see here” denials.

Imagine, back then, if we’d immediately known that the issue was not one party, but the 16 events that Sue Gray eventually judged to be “in scope.” 

Imagine that the prime minister’s claim in the House last December that “all guidance was followed at all times” had been immediately answered by today’s revelation about lockdown knees-ups continuing into the small hours, and—in other damning details spelled out in Gray’s final report—“excess alcohol consumption,” an “altercation” between a pair of individuals, and a third person being “sick.”

Imagine that his flat and specific denial at the Despatch Box that there had been any party on 13 November 2020 had immediately run up against the photographs of him raising a glass at precisely that party, which were—after the passage of another six months—eventually published by ITV this week.

Listen back to those early, sweeping prime ministerial assurances that there was nothing amiss, and imagine how they would have gone down if it were known that the police would judge no fewer than 83 people 126 times for breaking the law, and that three of those people would be the prime minister, his wife and his chancellor. 

It is perfectly plain that if the country and the Conservative Party knew then what we know now, about things which the prime minister himself was uniquely well-placed to get to the bottom of quicky had he wanted to, then Johnson would be finished. 

But the PM was not in a rush—far from it. In the face of a difficult problem he is said to like to “go doggo”—that is, to play dead like a dog, until the circus has moved on. The strategy has worked for him many times, but in Partygate he has been able to take it to new heights, because of the cumbersome and complicating entry of the Metropolitian Police into the whole affair. 

This immediately imposed two months of silence, during which any awkward question could be brushed aside as an improper attempt to second-guess the proper workings of a criminal inquiry. It also proved to be the window in which Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would ensure that the prime minister’s eventual fine for his birthday gathering, by the time it arrived, would appear as a trivial distraction from pressing global affairs. 

In the face of each new round of news from the police, No 10 could say it would be wrong to rush to judgment as the investigation ground on, and when Johnson wasn’t personally fined in the later rounds, this could be presented as a vindication, and reason to “move” on from the now “old news” that he had been fined after his original protestations of innocence. 

And thus even as Sue Gray gives her damning final judgment about “failures of leadership” in No 10 that allowed for a warped Downing Street culture, the latest odds from the bookmakers point towards Johnson riding out the year. Instead of the notorious “slow burn” of Watergate, Partygate risks being a scandal which the passage of time has steadily allowed to burn out.

There are echoes of the spluttering way in which the truth about Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War slowly emerged—in a manner that saved Tony Blair’s skin. It is forgotten now, but the great row about whether the government had inserted something which it knew to be false into one dossier on Iraq’s supposed weapons was itself a convenient distraction from an argument about a second Downing Street dossier, full of out-of-date information ripped off the internet which No 10 knew (or should have known) related to weapons that Saddam was largely documented as having already destroyed. 

In the heat of it, weapons expert David Kelly was driven to suicide, which triggered one inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, a remit the presiding judge, Lord Hutton, interpreted narrowly. As a result, many questions remained unanswered, and there had to be another inquiry later. But by the time Robin Butler’s report into the use of intelligence eventually emerged, time had ticked on to the point where no journalist thought to ask the mandarin about whether the prime minister needed to go, a question—he maintained—he’d been planning to answer in the affirmative. Eventually, there was a third—and entirely unvarnished—report by John Chilcot, but Tony Blair was long out of office by then. 

Playing for time avoids consequences in politics in a way that wouldn’t wash in a court of law. If a judge knew all the damning facts about a crime, they would not be moved to clemency in sentencing merely because these facts had taken a long time to assemble. 

There is another difference—which I fear is growing—between responsibilities at law, and accountability in politics. In legal processes, telling the truth remains paramount: perjury is a serious crime. In the British constitution, there was traditionally a parallel: a wilful ministerial truth in the Commons carried a political death sentence. John Profumo and Anthony Eden are among those who have historically discovered this to their cost. 

But as long ago as 2006, political scientist David Runciman was arguing that leaders who could lie with conviction were faring better than those who were seen to be hypocrites. The pattern of the rage around Partygate has given new force to this conclusion. In the press and the country outside, we have heard far less about Johnson misleading parliament than about his failure to follow the rules “he expected the rest of us to abide by.” And it is likewise a fixation on hypocrisy that has sustained the Daily Mail’s fanatical “Beergate” campaign against Keir Starmer: “how can he get on a high horse against Johnson,” the argument goes, “when there are questions about his own campaign dinner?”

Johnson is a roguish chancer who got sacked from one job in journalism for making up quotes, and then rose to great heights in another, with his colourful confections in the Telegraph about supposed Brussels regulations on condom size and banana curvature. As such, his ascent can certainly be seen as a culmination of these trends. Although he stands on the opposite side of the culture war from those usually tarred with the brush of postmodernism, he has long floated ideas about island airports and bridges to France and Northern Ireland, without any regard for whether they are going to happen, preferring the postmodern test of whether something is useful to the old-fashioned one about whether it is true. 

The difference today, however, is that he has been caught out speaking outright untruths at the despatch box—and failed, too, to correct them as soon he could have done. Don’t be distracted by the clownish content of the fibs or diverted into the details of cake and cava. What matters is the lying itself, not the specifics of the facts concealed. 

Some grumble that Britain doesn’t have a “proper” constitution, while others say that so long as our leaders are held to account in parliament we can muddle through OK. I can see both sides of that. But without respect for the truth in parliament we’d cease to have a constitution at all. And if a clown is allowed to exploit that position today, then the next to do so is likely be a knave—or worse.