Deck the Halls
Last year, I thought about breaking the rules and travelling home for Christmas. It wasn’t the risk of being stopped by police that put me off, it was the embarrassment I’d have felt in trying to explain my whereabouts to friends. They’d forfeited their plans, too. It seemed contemptuous and self-serving to act in a way that couldn’t be universalised without leading to much greater transmission and many more deaths. I stayed put and had a muted Christmas, which makes me one of the lucky ones. In the last fortnight of 2020, thousands of people drowned in the fog of their failing lungs, as their families waited for the phone calls that left them grieving in needful isolation.
On Friday 18 December, when London was in Tier 3 lockdown and all indoor gatherings were unlawful, Downing Street hosted a Christmas party, apparently one of many during that second peak. In a video leaked to ITV News, the government spokesperson Allegra Stratton – who yesterday resigned – sniggers her way through a rehearsal for a press conference in which she practises being questioned about the gathering.
Boris Johnson and his friends stand accused of callous hypocrisy. That there is ‘one rule for them, another for us’ isn’t really news, but the degree of contempt has to run pretty deep against a backdrop of so much death. When the news broke, I thought of the Christmas episode of EastEnders, which seems to follow the same template every year: a raucous party unfolds at The Vic while something unimaginably awful happens elsewhere on the square. That kind of cartoonish contrast isn’t supposed to happen in real life.
The really damning revelation is that the police and press are comfortable colluding with the government in behaviours that are not in the public interest. It’s implausible that the press weren’t in the know. At least some were in the room, or knew people who were. (Allegra Stratton’s husband is James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Times; he’s also a close friend since their schooldays of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.) It would have been the scoop of the year, except whoever broke the story would have implicated themselves or people close to them.
It’s also implausible that the police were unaware of the party. There is an officer stationed by the doorstep of Ten Downing Street twenty-four hours a day. The guests, bearing gifts (sources say there was a Secret Santa), would have passed under the eyes of a person whose colleagues have arrested nearly two thousand Londoners for hosting and attending parties or otherwise breaking lockdown rules.
Johnson has denied that the party took place, but hasn’t bothered to provide an alibi for the evening in question, so it looks likely that when firmer evidence emerges (as it surely will), he’ll frame it as a different kind of gathering. Probably not a ‘business meeting’, because Stratton has already chortled over that fib in the leaked clip, but some other euphemism.
Like most antisocial behaviours, lying tends to be self-limiting: people who lie can’t cause harm for long because they lose credibility, and lying only works if people are inclined to believe you. But as with most things, Johnson is an exception to the rule. He lies effortlessly, without any apparent cognitive dissonance or regard for plausibility, and with little effect on his credibility or popularity.
In August, the prime minister intervened to facilitate the rescue of 173 cats and dogs from Kabul, along with the white British CEO of the animal rescue charity Nowzad. A Foreign Office whistleblower has confirmed the intervention, which may have been lubricated by a series of text messages sent to Carrie Johnson by an animal rights campaigner. Meanwhile, only 5 per cent of Afghan nationals who have applied for evacuation to the UK have received assistance, leaving many to make the cold, hostile journey westward with the help of smugglers. One of the people who drowned in the Channel last month was an Afghan soldier called Sanowbar who had worked with the British Army.
Johnson contends that claims of his involvement in the pet rescue are ‘complete nonsense’. It’s not clear that it’ll matter either way. Those who think it’s a damaging scandal seem not to have noticed that plenty of British people really like dogs and really don’t like refugees. The accusation that Johnson has put ‘pets before people’ only works as criticism if the people in question are thought to count. Change it to ‘pets before asylum seekers’ and it sounds like a winning right-wing slogan. There seems to be little public opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill, which among other things will give the home secretary increased powers to deprive people of their British citizenship.
It may be harder for the public to ignore or forgive another major scandal the Tories are weathering. As the Grenfell Tower inquiry enters its final stages, the government has been forced to admit that its lax regulation enabled construction companies to violate safety guidance as they built cheap, flammable blocks of flats. (It’s chilling now to recall David Cameron’s promise in 2012 that his government would ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’ and his gleeful allusion to a ‘bonfire’ of red tape.) A cladding fire at a tower in Camberwell in 2009, in which six people died, might have sounded a warning to a government less enmeshed with big business and more concerned about people’s lives. A month before the Grenfell fire, a senior civil servant wrote that ‘we,or ministers, are increasingly vulnerable to some or all of these risks becoming material and [the government] being held to account for being inactive.’ Hundreds of thousands of people still sleep inches from flammable walls and most have no recourse to government funds to make their homes safe.
An obvious response to such cruelty and negligence is to take to the streets; any of these offences would be reason enough. Yet the government is prising away that last form of accountability. Priti Patel snuck eighteen pages of amendments into the authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as it makes its way through the House of Lords. The bill seeks to outlaw protests that ‘threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives’ (which is to say: protests, full stop). The revised version will extend stop and search powers, make it a jailable offence to block a road, and will allow those of us who have committed ‘protest-related’ offences in the past to be barred from taking to the streets.
Might the leaked Christmas party be a decoy for these other, more egregious wrongs? It’s not out of the question that Johnson keeps a few gaffes in reserve, getting singed here and there, to take the heat off graver issues. The optics may be terrible, but an illicit Christmas party is entirely in keeping with the dishevelled, naughty boy image that has served him so well; and he knows, as we know, that he’ll probably get away with it again.
There’s no use looking to the leader of the opposition. Keir Starmer, ever eager to cement his image as inoffensive head boy in waiting, has once again fluffed an open goal, and called for Johnson to ‘step up’ while others are yelling that he should step down (with today’s birth announcement, he could even resort to the traditional excuse of wanting to spend more time with his family). True to form, Starmer chose a cringeworthy, nonsensical soundbite – ‘we’ve got a prime minister who is socially distanced from the truth’ – when it would have been pithier simply to say that Johnson is a liar who has no fucking business leading a country.