During his second term as London Mayor, I visited Boris Johnson in his office at City Hall and, in the course of our conversation, found that we shared an admiration for The Roman Revolution: Ronald Syme’s classic 1939 account of the last days of the Roman Republic. In particular, we both liked Syme’s sharp maxim that “[in] all ages, whatever the name and form of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.”
Almost a decade later, that maxim resonates more pointedly than ever. After he left City Hall in 2016, Johnson positioned himself artfully (and successfully) as the enemy of what he presented as the ruling oligarchy, posturing as the voice of the people, a whirring dynamo of popular emancipation.
In the Brexit referendum campaign, he opposed both the liberal metropolitan elite and Brussels bureaucracy, urging the voters to “take back control”. Since 2016, as foreign secretary, backbench dissident, and, for the past two and a half years, prime minister, he has missed no opportunity to identify and oppose any number of alleged “establishments”; all of them supposedly interwoven and united in their determination to thwart the will of the people: the judiciary, diehard remainers, “experts”, the civil service “Blob”, the BBC, the “woke” intellectual class, parliament… all have been accused by Johnson and his allies of opposing the vox populi which the tousle-haired tribune claims to represent.
The trouble is that Syme’s Law remains true. In practice, Johnson has simply replaced one oligarchy with another – and a pretty lousy one, at that. This is the risk that always faces the aggressive populist: If you reconfigure political culture, by all and any means available, around the proposition that we have been betrayed in the past by a rotten elite, you cannot then expect much mercy when you and your cronies turn out to be even worse.
Which is why the continuing saga of Christmas parties and alleged Covid rule-breaking has been so toxic for the government, so hard for the PM to shake off and so infuriating to voters who would normally be completely uninterested in Downing Street social occasions.
It is true that very few Westminster village stories achieve “cut through” – attracting public attention – but this one most certainly has. Why so? Because, just like the notorious lockdown-busting trip paid by Dominic Cummings to Barnard Castle in April 2020, or the image of Johnson mask-less at Hexham hospital last month, the daily revelations about parties last Christmas dramatise an unflattering truth about this regime: that, despite all their claims to the contrary, its most senior members believe themselves to be above the rules.
Even as they pretend to stand robustly for the masses, for the people’s interests, for “levelling up”, they shoot past us like Soviet commissars in the ZiL lane, barely noticing the traffic jam of ordinary life they leave in their wake. When it comes to sticking to Covid regulations, Caesar and his third wife really ought to be above suspicion. And this is plainly not the case.
I must confess that I am losing track of the number of alleged social occasions that have come to light, and which Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, must now investigate. I think it is eight so far – though it seems likely that there are more to come.
What started as press reports of a lone, rule-breaking party in Downing Street on 18 December, 2020 has now metastasised into an ever-growing inventory of get-togethers, festivities, quizzes, leaving dos, celebrations and bashes. While the rest of the country was subject to full lockdown or the various tiers of regional restrictions – confined to “bubbles”, denied a social life, unable to see loved ones, even when they were ill or dying – the government seems to have been dancing around the corridors of Whitehall: more conga than Cobra.
Indeed, the sheer application with which Number 10 in particular devoted itself to socialising is almost heroic – a Studio Fifty-Tory, in spectacularly poor taste. True, the Conservatives have always considered themselves to be (in contrast to scolding, puritanical Labour) the party of fun: of cakes and ale, cavaliers, and karaoke.
But this is next level stuff. I am reminded of the “longest and most destructive party ever held” in the galaxy, as described by Douglas Adams in Life, the Universe and Everything: “now into its fourth generation and still no one shows any signs of leaving. Somebody did once look at his watch, but that was eleven years ago now, and there has been no follow up”.
Unfortunately for the PM, “follow up” is all that he now faces. The revels of Christmas 2020 are the subject of official, media and public scrutiny, and Johnson is visibly squirming in the spotlight.
Why, when the voters seem to put up with his lying, are they so annoyed by the rule-breaking? The reasons are intimately connected with the distinct nature of populist leadership: psychological research has shown that, when voters feel betrayed or disenfranchised by a political establishment, the lies of a rising demagogue can be not only tolerable but an appealing sign of authenticity; grotesquely, the falsehood becomes a wink that says: “I share your beliefs, your prejudice, your disdain for the charades of the system.” This, in essence, is how Johnson forged his path to Number 10.
Hypocrisy, however, is quite different to lying. It signals that the politician believes himself to be superior to the public; that he privately holds the voters in contempt; that he does not abide by the rules that he imposes upon others. As the Cambridge political scientist, David Runciman, writes in Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond, people prefer “the liar to the hypocrite because the liar was simply trying to deceive them. The hypocrite was patronizing them, which is worse.”
This, in turn, melts trust in a government – and no government can accomplish anything much without a reasonable measure of trust. It is the connective tissue which links those in power with those they represent, and, at the end of 2021, it is in very poor shape.
Even before the Daily Mirror first broke the story of the party held in Downing Street on 18 December, 2020, the government’s advisers on the pandemic were concerned about the extent to which the public could be expected to comply with future Covid restrictions. On 26 November, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, told the Local Government Association that he was concerned about “behavioural fatigue” after almost two years of intermittent clampdowns, and wondered “[if] we need to do something more muscular, at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant [Omicron] or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?” If Whitty was thinking that 17 days ago, imagine his private anxieties today.
Johnson’s strong personal belief is that the government can still force a way out of this crisis if it shifts the emphasis from social restrictions to medical treatment: from NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) to PIs (pharmaceutical interventions). The curtailment of freedoms may at times be necessary, but it is costly to morale, mental wellbeing and national prosperity. In contrast, therapeutic responses to Covid – vaccines, boosters, antiviral medications – are energising, liberating and (in general) conducive to social solidarity. It will take an epidemiological earthquake to persuade this prime minister to close schools again, or introduce a fourth national lockdown.
Hence, his pre-recorded televised statement last night, which sought to reframe the drama of the past fortnight and focus the nation’s attention solely upon a new and extremely ambitious mission: to administer one million booster jabs a day, and offer the top-up vaccine to every adult by the end of the month (bringing the target forward audaciously from the end of January).
If modern politics is essentially storytelling, then Johnson’s objective in his piece-to-camera was to change the plotline from the rolling cold-case investigation of parties in 2020 to the here and now, and to the drama of a national crusade to save lives from the threat of Omicron, protect the NHS from overheating (a clear and present danger) and – the perennial objective of a tabloid government – to throw a ring of tinsel around Christmas.
Will it work? Possibly, in the sense that, in the remaining 18 days of December, millions of people may indeed heed the call to get a booster jab; in line with the scientific guidance that two vaccines may not be enough against the new variant, but that a third is a significant safeguard.
Yet it would be a mistake to interpret such behaviour as a public endorsement of Johnson, or a collective act of forgiveness for his government’s egregious rule-busting. Aside from a conspicuous, over-amplified minority, Britons have behaved with admirable common sense during this pandemic, making many sacrifices, heeding expert guidance and getting vaccinated in their own interests and as responsible citizens. They have acquitted themselves well. It is the government that looks like a bunch of buffoons.
To be clear: it is wildly premature to declare Johnson doomed, or a lame duck, or in imminent danger of facing a vote of confidence in his leadership (this would require 15 per cent of Tory MPs – 55 of them – to request such a ballot in the first place, a remote prospect at present). What has changed is the complexion of his authority.
Exactly two years ago, he stood in Downing Street, celebrating the “overwhelming mandate” he had been awarded the day before, “this moment of national resolution” and “the trust you have placed in us and in me”. Today, less than half way into the parliamentary term, his command is altogether more provisional.
In spite of his solid working majority of 79 in the Commons, he will need Labour votes tomorrow to ensure that his “plan B” measures – and, in particular, rules requiring vaccine passports for large events – are passed. On Thursday, he faces a serious challenge from the Liberal Democrats in the North Shropshire by-election – the seat vacated by Owen Paterson now suddenly vulnerable, in spite of the 23,000-vote majority achieved by the Tories in 2019. It is a measure of how much has changed in the past two years that such an upset is even conceivable.
Again, it is a mistake to think that Johnson’s current predicament foreshadows a rapid end to the era he has defined and a return to business as usual – whatever that means. In politics, the clock is never turned back. One only has to consider the difficulties faced by President Biden to realise what a delusion it is to think otherwise.
In truth, nobody yet knows what durable post-populist governments will look like. All that may be said with any certainty is that restorationist strategies will fail: all attempts simply to return to the methods and governing style of the pre-2016 world, before Donald Trump and Brexit, will falter, and falter badly.
If Keir Starmer really wants to be prime minister, he has to do a lot more than sound sensible, express shock at the Johnson government’s antics, and remind us as often as possible that he used to be Director of Public Prosecutions. It is not enough to be anti-Boris. The future belongs to the next political leader who looks impressively post-Boris.
That, at any rate, is the challenge that has been set to all the pretenders to the top job, Tory and Labour. One can simultaneously accept that Johnson is going to be in Downing Street for some time to come; and acknowledge that the rust has well and truly set in. And rust, of course, never sleeps.
Meanwhile, reflect upon the ignominy of living in a country where the most senior civil servant in the land is compelled to investigate a bunch of sweaty Tory piss-ups. How Z-list a nation have we become? And how great, for that matter, is the mismatch between the needs of the hour and the quality of those at the helm?
Right now, as case numbers multiply and hospitalisations look set to soar, a government of quality and statesmanship would be really handy. Yet, as 2021 draws to a weary close, and the pandemic enters its fourth calendar year, the biggest party of the lot is the one being hosted by Omicron; a party to which we are all, alas, invited.