Published:

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Never mind cakeism, the Prime Minister really knows how to take the biscuit.

On Wednesday morning, as travellers attempted to leave the country (and who can blame them, given the current sorry state of the nation) Radio 4’s Today devoted most of its interview with Grant Shapps to Partygate.

There was chaos at Dover, at our airports, and at the Eurostar in St Pancras. This was caused, in part, by many holidaymakers wanting to have their first Easter break in two years, having been kettled in this country thanks to the lockdowns imposed by the Government and the devolved administrations.

But instead of being asked why our transport hubs failed to anticipate demand, Shapps spent his time defending the indefensible: Johnson’s breach of the very laws he introduced.

The interview came the day after the police issued a fine for a gathering in the Cabinet room to mark the Prime Minister’s birthday. According to press reports, the birthday cake apparently stayed inside its box, giving Tupperware its biggest starring role since revelations by a fake footman about how the Queen breakfasts.

For once, Number 10 seemed keen to establish that Johnson had his cake – but didn’t eat it. Or even, we infer, blow out candles. A reverse of booster Boris’s usual boast of being pro-having cake and pro-eating it.

News of this particular u-turn came hours before the announcement that inflation has hit a 30-year high of seven per cent.

Eye-watering inflation coincides with the tax burden imposed upon the British people reaching levels not seen since the era of Clement Attlee.

He at least had the excuse of needing funds: for post-War national reconstruction after six years of world war and the defeat of the Nazis; for the Occupation of Germany; for defence against the advance of Communism; for the oversight of an (unravelling) Empire; and for the introduction of the welfare state.

Last weekend, Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, warned that civil unrest might not be far away because of the cost-of-living crisis, as families face a squeeze on their finances, especially with the sky-rocketing price of fuel and food.

Meanwhile, it’s political groundhog day, with headlines and airwaves dominated by Partygate and questions about the Prime Minister’s character.

Right now, the Government is emulating the worse of Edward Heath’s economically calamitous 1970s, allied with John Major’s sleaze-ridden 1990s – without the intervening revolution of the Thatcher era.

Margaret Thatcher had many critics, but none doubted her capacity for hard work, her sense of purpose, or her moral seriousness. She was divisive, often loathed rather than loved, but her integrity was rarely, if ever, called into question. Neither was her mastery of every brief. Unlike some…

“And I have to say in all frankness, at the time, it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules.”

At this point on Tuesday during Johnson’s statement over his law-breaking, the British public’s howls of outrage might even have got through the cloth ears of many Conservative MPs.

For the Prime Minister not to be up to speed on the laws he and his ministers imposed – via secondary legislation without the benefit of Parliamentary scrutiny – is baffling. For the Prime Minister to be so cavalier about laws which were the most egregious assault on hard-fought freedoms in Britain’s history is beyond comprehension.

Conservative MPs who are telling themselves the electorate “priced in” Johnson’s character flaws back in December 2019 should move with the times. No-one “priced in” his panicking over a pandemic, depriving people of their basic liberties, only then to stick two fingers up to the public by ignoring the rules/laws/guidance himself.

Prime ministers are leaders. Johnson might do worse than look at the Values and Standards of the British Army to remind himself that leadership is a commitment 24/7/365:

“Commanders must understand the importance of Values and Standards, set the right example and demand the same of their subordinates and peers.”

His subordinates must include the cavorting civil servants who believed they were above the law. On the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, they held their very own “swinger’s party”, where Wilfred Johnson’s garden swing was broken. It is unimaginable such conduct would have been contemplated during Theresa May’s time at No.10.

The reason why Johnson has become the first Prime Minister in Britain’s history to have been found to have broken the law is because he’s Boris Johnson. Just like Blair and Iraq, or Cameron and Brexit, he will be linked with piffling, petty Partygate; for living it up while voters could not visit their dying friends and relations.

Perhaps defending the Prime Minister to the media is a displacement activity for Cabinet members who are simply too overwhelmed to begin to tackle the problems piling up in their in-trays.

It must be far easier to have hair-splitting, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates about whether the he lied to, or inadvertently misled, Parliament over the lockdown-busting knees-ups rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting to grips with the NHS backlog in the treatment of cancer, or the estimated 135,000 ‘ghost children’ who have simply disappeared from education.

Ukraine’s President was a television personality who became a politician. He has risen magnificently to lead his country in war. Like Emmanuel Macron suddenly sporting a hoodie and stubble, our Prime Minister wants some of the Zelensky stardust – and perhaps Ukrainian warfighting courage – to rub off on him.

We are also told that we must not change leaders because of the situation in Ukraine. We are being told we must instead stick with Johnson, who was infamously ‘ambushed’ by a cake. A cake which, we now know, stayed in its box. In truth, he is as past his sell-by date.