What was your worst birthday party? I once insisted on revising for my GCSE mocks through one of mine, so it was hardly a laugh a minute. Still, my parents sung me happy birthday, presents were had, and cake was eaten. Nobody, most importantly, was accused of breaking the law. Neither Mr and Mrs Atkinson nor I received a fine two years later for inappropriate social interaction. We have not been excoriated across the news, crucified through social media, and barracked in Parliament for partying whilst people died. In short, even my worst birthday didn’t get me into as much mess as the Prime Minister.
Of course, it depends on your definition of a party. To me, some salad, a few colleagues singing happy birthday, and a cake out of a Tupperware box hardly sounds like a rager. If Johnson had really wanted to celebrate, he should have summoned up his inner classicist, imitated Alexander the Great, and burnt Whitehall to the ground after having a few too many. It would certainly have sped up reforming the Civil Service. Instead, the poor bloke was stuck with that paltry affair between meetings. And now the Met has come calling.
Of all the various events, known and unknown, which might have prompted the issuing of a Fixed Penalty Notice, it is the Cabinet Room cake giving and singsong of 19th June 2020 that was the most surprising – especially for the Chancellor, who had committed the cardinal sin of arriving for a meeting early.
Nobody involved at the time considered it rule-breaking – hence why it was briefed out by Number 10 to The Times that very evening. It came as public servants, from nurses to police officers, were pictured engaged in similar at-work interactions across the country, sharing cakes, filming Tik Toks, and clapping for each other in a nice, big public sector love-in. The event was brief, between colleagues, and seemed entirely innocent.
That the Prime Minister is now being fined for something he believed was within the rules is significant for several reasons.
Firstly, it suggests the Met is taking as hard-line an approach to possible infractions whilst investigating Downing Street. As soon as Johnson looked up from his work and the singing began, he was breaking the law.
Secondly, it can be argued the Prime Minister did not lie to Parliament when he suggested no rule-breaking had occurred, since he genuinely believed this event had not done so.
Finally, it is now open season on every other possible bit of lockdown rule-breaking that politicians have previously escaped with – hence why Kier Starmer has been first in the dock.
This, at least, are some of the points that have been raised by two of the most prominent voices in the Conservative firmament – our own Daniel Hannan, and GB News’ Tom Harwood. They are both commentators for whom I have a great deal of time. Hannan converted me to Whiggery for about a year as a teen (it was that or dye my hair), and Harwood gave me my TV debut.
But my immense and intense respect for the pair of them should not stop me from pointing out the various obvious flaws in their arguments. As hideously unfair as the lockdown may have been, and as eloquent their case, it will not get Johnson off the hook.
For one thing, if the Prime Minister is not Alexander, then he may well be Julius Caesar – a blonde populist with a flair for self-promotion, although Caesar’s approach to dealing with French misbehaviour was a bit more robust.
Remember the story of his wife Pompeia. A man, dressed as a woman (when such things were a bit more scandalous) infiltrated the all-woman Bona Dea Festival in Ancient Rome, to seduce Pompeia. Although he failed in his efforts, the ensuing scandal led to Caesar divorcing his poor spouse. His reasoning? “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”. Similarly, whilst the Prime Minister may have thought that no rules were being broken, behaviour in Downing Street should have been assiduously free from any potential rule-breaking – pour encourager les autres.
You may say this is unfair. After all, Number 10 is hardly a typical place to work, and the months of mid-2020 must have been deeply stressful for the people employed there. Who wouldn’t have wanted to spend ten minutes wishing their recently recovered boss all the best, or enjoyed a glass of something for half an hour in the evening sun at the end of a long, hot day?
But the central fact is inescapable – the Prime Minister introduced those harsh, unnecessary, and damaging rules, and he should have been expected to have stuck to them zealously. Otherwise, why should the rest of us have bothered?
That does not mean various elements of Hannan and Harwood’s analysis are without merit. They have rightly highlighted that the rules over visiting dying relatives had been changed in the week leading up to the date of the surprise birthday party.
Moreover, Starmer can strike every pious pose he likes over the unfairness of the rules, and how disgusting it might be for the Prime Minister to have broken them. But he voted for them every time, opposed efforts to remove them – and let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Or have the first beer.
Nevertheless, one cannot escape the central problem with the Hannan-Harwood case. I mostly agree with them over the birthday incident, which seems a ludicrous thing to punish the Prime Minister and especially the Chancellor for.
But as good a case as you can make for letting Johnson off on that count, you cannot escape the potential threat of further fines for events that do not appear so innocent. Some events may have been organised by civil servants, without the Prime Minister’s knowledge or attendance. He cannot be on top of everything in Number 10, and whilst he must provide clear leadership, not all of that was within his control.
But there are also reports of ABBA parties, celebrations of the defenestration of Vote Leave, and events that went a bit beyond Tupperware and salad. If some of the things one hears furtively whispered about those events are true, and if Sue Gray’s 300-odd pictures enter the public domain, then the argument that Johnson did not know he was breaking the rules could become much harder to make.
In that case, it will look likely that he knowingly misled Parliament – which Hannan makes clear is a resigning offence. As with Nixon, it would not be the crime that got the Prime Minister, but the cover-up.
For what it’s worth, I have always found barrister Steven Barrett’s take on Number 10’s legal position the most viable – if your ultimate goal is to get Johnson off the hook, that is. Under the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, Crown property, including Downing Street, is exempt from restrictions. Hannan dismissed this as special pleading in his take, but I wouldn’t be sure. After all, it would have saved Number 10 an awful lot of fuss, and the rest of us the interminability of Partygate, if they had just made clear from the start that there really was one rule for them, and one for everyone else.