“There he stands in the bright spotlight, alone, laughless but smiling. A bowler hat, a cane, eyebrows, a gap in his teeth, and dead eyes.” Laurence Olivier’s recollection of Archie Rice, the fading music hall performer he played in John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) – symbol of England’s decline post-Suez – is suddenly, eerily familiar, is it not?
The spotlight, the solitude, the dead eyes: that was Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday. The PM told the House that he had come to apologise – though what followed was less an apology than a semantic squirm, a bid to ape contrition without admitting guilt or shouldering the blame for what has happened to this country and to its government on his watch.
Yet the eyes, the barely suppressed resentment and the slumped shoulders told their own story. Johnson’s time may be drawing to a close, but his political antennae are still well attuned; and he knew, with terrible certainty, that something quite extraordinary had happened the day before: Tuesday 11 January.
As one of his supporters – now wavering – puts it: “That was the day that a crisis turned into a disaster. Boris knew he was in big trouble before, but this was on a whole new scale.” At 5:44pm on the Monday, Paul Brand, UK Editor of ITV News, had tweeted details of the now-infamous email from Martin Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary, inviting 100 people to attend a party in the garden of Number 10 on 20 May 2020, to “make the most of the lovely weather”, and to “bring your own booze!”
The next day – the Tuesday – was one of those days in politics that one never forgets. For weeks, we have been reading almost daily reports of Downing Street social events that plainly and flagrantly defied Covid restrictions. What the Reynolds email did, in its brazenly celebratory tone, was to open the sluice-gates to a torrent of national emotion; in its smug breeziness, it enabled millions of people to give full voice to the rage that had been rising within them.
It encapsulated, with horrific precision, the deplorable hypocrisy that they had sensed was the thread that ran through all these social events. While the rest of us were doing this – leading profoundly constricted lives, hardly seeing our relatives (even on their death-beds), teaching our children at home, swallowing weeks of loneliness in the name of the common good – you lot were doing that.
Don’t forget, either, that this particular party was held months before the vaccine became available. The stakes were still so incredibly high, even if the morals of the government were so appallingly low.
Back to last Tuesday: I cannot recall a day, perhaps since 9/11 or the morning after the Brexit referendum, when I have received so many unprompted messages and calls from so many people – from friends, from acquaintances, from contacts – all expressing rage and incredulity, of course; but also finding the words, at last, to articulate fully what they and their loved ones had been through in 2020 and 2021; and feeling driven to do so because of the frankly disgusting contrast of what had been going on in Number 10 all along.
Watch the emotion and anger of Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday morning as he recounted to Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chair, what it had been like for him and his family last April to grieve for his daughter whilst abiding by the strict Covid regulations – and how it felt to discover that (the night before Prince Philip’s socially distanced funeral) there had been not one but two leaving dos in Downing Street.
“There are going to be thousands of people who have that story in their background and, if I may say so, you are in here telling me about a civil servant’s inquiry – that will not answer that anger,” said Phillips. “Does the prime minister really understand why people are angry?”
Dowden looked on with the desperate countenance of a ventriloquist’s dummy whose ventriloquist is on his lunch break. He had absolutely nothing of value to say in response. Indeed, how could he? Phillips had arrived at the key point: which is that the much heralded investigation into the parties by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, is intrinsically incapable of drawing a line under the whole scandal. Gray is famously thorough, fair, and rigorous. But it is not the business of a senior Whitehall official, however ethically impressive, to mend damage of this scale and character.
In practice, there is no way that Gray’s report will provide the reckoning that is required. This is no longer simply a forensic matter, an inquiry into the letter and spirit of the Covid laws in force at various stages of the pandemic, and an investigation into the nature of the specific breaches. The forces at work are now tectonic, and will not be quelled by a single document, however impeccably researched.
Last Tuesday witnessed the thunderous clash between two utterly incompatible psychologies: on the one hand, the collective distress of a country that has been, to varying degrees, through a horrendous experience for almost two years; and on the other, the cavalier sense of entitlement of a ruling elite, that really, truly does think itself special and different.
The whole point of post-traumatic stress is that it manifests itself most powerfully well after the initial affliction or injury. As Freud said famously in 1895: “I think this man is suffering from memories.” Our own society – like so many around the world – is suffering from memories, too. Precisely because something like normal life is slowly asserting itself, we are getting the full measure at last of all the anxiety, fear, constriction and sheer weirdness of the past two years.
It is like a huge psychic credit card bill landing unexpectedly on the nation’s doormat. The government’s own statistics reflect a sharp uptick in reported mental health problems between April 2020 and May 2021. But the problem is not confined to formal data. It is broader, more general, harder to quantify.
In her history of the 1918 flu pandemic, Laura Spinney writes of the hundreds of thousands of deaths as the “dark matter of the universe, so intimate and familiar as not to be spoken about.” A century later, the repression has not been quite so sharp. Still, there has been – till now – a sort of collective aphasia at work: a shared intuition that we all had to get through this thing before venting too noisily about what it had actually been like.
And now that dam has been broken; unexpectedly so, as a monstrous hypocrisy has come to light. It is quite something to discover that even as we were all sticking to the rules, however inconvenient or distressing, the rule-makers themselves were more or less systematically ignoring them. The special drinks fridge smuggled into Number 10; the suitcase of booze; the “wine time Fridays”: these were not momentary lapses of judgment but symptoms of explicit, ongoing defiance of the very restrictions Number 10 staff were finessing at their keyboards.
Of course, there is nothing new in Tory elitism: in the past, it has manifested itself as the patrician duty of the governing class to assist the needy; as aggressive technocracy in the Thatcherite era; as the shared ethos of the public schoolboys that ran the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg coalition. But this is something of a different order.
Ministers yesterday spoke of an “underlying culture” in Number 10 that needed to be rooted out – as if the problem in this case was not personal but institutional. All that drinking in the sunshine during lockdown? The wine runs to the Co-op in the Strand? That was, we are now meant to believe, systemic – not a matter of individual choices by individual people who considered themselves above the law.
Where did this degeneracy come from? From the top, naturally. Even in his pseudo-apology to the Commons, Johnson sounded like a member of the Bullingdon Club, shabby and hungover in his tails, explaining wretchedly to the university proctors that he and his friends – or, more accurately, their parents – would pick up the tab for the damage caused to college property and the trauma suffered by the geese.
Much worse, the understanding that some partygoers are more equal than others is a feature of all populist autocracies. Rising to power as the tribunes of the people versus the elites, such regimes invariably aggregate to themselves all the privileges, perks and exemptions that they possibly can.
Yesterday’s popular front – Brexiteers promising to help the British “take back control”, for instance – is today’s cosy oligarchy knocking it back in the sunshine; while doctors and nurses turn 18-hour days in ICUs, fret about the shortage of PPE, telephone families to tell them that their relatives have died; and do not even consider the possibility of “spilling out” into hospital car parks at the end of their shifts to sink a glass or three.
Notice, too, how crudely populist was Johnson’s bid over the weekend to avert the end of his premiership – the hilariously named “Operation Save Big Dog”. First of all, he promises a purge of all the wicked advisers who allegedly let down this paragon of prime ministers and stained his reputation as a sea-green incorruptible with their shameful invitations to carouse. All of which confirms my long-held belief that the PM likes building buses so that he can throw his staff under them.
Also thrown under the bus, second, was the BBC, as Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, suddenly announced that this year’s licence fee settlement would be “the last”. There is indeed a legitimate debate to be had about the future financial model for the Beeb in the age of streaming and of digital devices that will increasingly make meaningless a compulsory levy on television ownership. But there is a yawning gap between acknowledging the need for such a discussion and casually declaring the end as we know it of the world’s greatest public service broadcaster simply because the prime minister is having a terrible weekend.
Third – a reliable populist ploy – migrants have been targeted once again, with ludicrous briefings about the “militarisation” of the Channel to stop the influx of boats; and plans to “offshore” migrants to countries such as Rwanda or Ghana for processing and resettlement. Will this ever happen? That is a question very far from Johnson’s mind. What he is trying to do, by any means necessary, is simply remind his fanbase that, in spite of the present shambles, he is still their man, still sees them, still shares their fear and loathing. His methods, as he thrashes around, are ever more depressingly Trumpesque.
One question that should be asked in all of this is: whatever happened to the Tory Party? You remember them. They used to be quite enthusiastic about the monarchy; whereas the Johnson regime, which lied to the Queen about the unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019, had to apologise to her once again last week over the parties held the night before her husband’s funeral; when, do not forget, the country was in a period of national mourning. Under no previous Conservative leader would such an insult to a bereaved monarch have been remotely conceivable.
Second, Tories were once pretty attached to the Union (often styling themselves as the “Conservative and Unionist” party). But last week they all but explicitly embraced their new identity as the English nationalist party. After Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, called for Johnson to go, he was summarily dismissed by Jacob Rees-Mogg as “a lightweight figure”. But the prime minister’s allies were less sanguine when Ruth Davidson (a former leadership contender who would make a much better PM than the incumbent) endorsed Ross’s demand. It is now probable that Johnson will not be invited to speak at the party’s Scottish conference in March. Is this a rift with which the historic party of the Union is comfortable?
Third: the Conservatives are the party of the rule of law, or they are nothing. And yet – repeatedly under Johnson – this historic connection has been breached, without forethought or compunction. The principle of equality before the law is one of the bedrocks of conservative philosophy and ideals; the notion that justice is blind to status, and that, for free-born Britons, the terrain of the law is a level playing field.
Yet, self-evidently, this cohort of Tories believes no such thing. Only weeks after passing some of the most socially restrictive legislation in modern peacetime – described by Matt Hancock as “Napoleonic” – they were breaking it recklessly in the gardens of the PM’s offices. Indeed, they could hardly have done more to signal their sense of entitlement and difference from the public they so vigorously claim to represent.
For all the horrendous coverage of the past few weeks, I am not sure that some senior Tories have yet fully grasped how great is the damage, and how long it will take to repair. The notion that a bit of Beeb-bashing, being mean to migrants and sacking a bunch of advisers will fix everything is beyond risible. Indeed, it only makes Johnson look weaker and more depleted.
It may not even be enough to replace him; but that is certainly going to happen now. As one potential successor put it to me: “I have no idea of the precise timing but a decision has definitely been taken by the party that he has to go. Boris’s time is over. What’s next? That’s the question.”
It certainly is. A week ago, I thought that the Tory Party’s inertia, the procedural difficulty of ousting a prime minister and the absence of a stand-out replacement might just be enough to buy Johnson at least a reasonable stay of execution.
Not so today. The countdown is well-advanced and the preparations for regime change barely concealed.
Like Archie Rice in the final scene of The Entertainer, Johnson lingers on the stage, singing: “We’re all out for good old Number One … So why oh why should I bother to care?” He never did, really, except about his own narcissistic trajectory. That journey is now drawing to an ignominious close; and, as it does, there is one last leaving do that needs to be written into the nation’s diary.