In Greece the New Year brings the cutting of the vasilopita and the search for the ‘flouri’ (token) that will bring good luck for the year. The UK has a similar tradition of finding the ‘sixpence’ in the Christmas pudding. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will need all the luck he can find to keep his job following revelations that during 2020, while the rest of the country was in Coronavirus lockdown, he was attending parties and social gatherings at his office at Number 10 Downing Street.
Rules for some
Early in December 2021, allegations were made of a Christmas party held at Downing Street almost a year earlier on 18 December 2020. Reports were that dozens of people attended the party and exchanged ‘secret Santa’ gift seven though the Covid restrictions that were then in place prevented households from mixing indoors. Johnson and government ministers spent a week on TV and radio saying that there had been no party and Covid guidelines had always been followed. As these denials were being made, a video was published. It had been recorded in December 2020, just a few days after the day that the party was alleged to have taken place. It showed Downing Street staff joking at a mock press conference about how they would respond if news of the party became known.
Johnson was forced to apologise to parliament for the video but continued to deny that there had been a Christmas party the previous year. He said that he had been ‘assured’ that no Covid rules were broken and promised to launch an internal review. This was ‘classic’ Boris, namely, to admit nothing, launch an inquiry to buy time and then later, when people were less angry, claim that everything was a regrettable, but unintentional mistake that will not be repeated – case closed.
This may have worked for one event, but rumours of other parties and gatherings emerged. A few days after his apology in parliament, a picture was published of Boris ata Christmas quiz on 15 December 2020, also at Number 10. Boris said that he had ‘briefly’ taken part in the quiz ‘virtually’, but the picture shows him close to two colleagues. Just before this Christmas, another photograph was published of Boris Johnson and up to 17 staff in the Downing Street garden chatting over ‘wine and pizza’ on 15 May 2020. Covid rules at that time permitted people to go back to work if they were unable to work from home and to meet one other person outdoors at a distance of two metres. Johnson insisted that the gathering was a ‘work meeting’, but people are not socially distanced, and the picture shows Boris sitting next to his now wife, Carrie Symonds, who is holding their new baby.
The 2021 Christmas holidays came just in time for Johnson giving him a brief respite from the constant questioning about Covid rule breaking. The peace did not last. Early in January 2022, Johnson’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, claimed that, in addition to the party on 15 May 2020, there had been another lockdown-breaking gathering a few days later. Cummings story was confirmed when e-mails surfaced that showed Johnson’s principal private secretary, a senior civil servant, inviting up to 100 staff members for ‘socially distanced drinks’ in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, telling people to ‘bring your own booze’. At that time, Covid restrictions prevented people from being with dying relatives.
On 12 January 2022, Boris, having no choice, admitted that he had attended the party on 20 May 2020 and apologised, again, to parliament, regretting ‘very much’ being at the party, claiming, in his defence, that he thought it was a work meeting and that he had not seen the e-mail. He also claimed that it was not certain that rules had been broken and everyone should wait for the inquiry, being carried out by another senior civil servant, into parties and gatherings at Downing Street to report its findings.
A party of one
No one is convinced and everyone is furious. Johnson is in deep trouble and isolated. He has no strong base of support in his Conservative party. His strength was always the ability to win elections, but this is now in doubt. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of voters believe Johnson should resign. Even before Boris’ latest admission and apology, the Labour party opposition was ahead in the opinion polls by 39% to 32% for the Conservative party. More voters also say that Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, would be a better prime minister than Johnson.
The Conservative party is famous for ruthlessly dismissing leaders who can no longer win election and some party members have already called on Johnson to resign. Worryingly for Johnson, opinion polls also indicate that the Conservative party would do better in any election if the current finance minister, Rishi Sunak, were to replace Boris as prime minister. Almost half of Conservative party members believe Sunak would be a better leader, while a third think Johnson should resign. Sunak was noticeably absent when Boris delivered his apology.
It is difficult to see how Johnson can survive for much longer. He may survive the inquiry into the parties and gatherings and claim that it exonerates him, but Johnson has little credibility and the damage done looks irreparable. The consensus is that either Boris was too stupid to notice that he was at a party that broke his own lockdown rules, or he thinks that people are stupid enough to believe him. Even before this latest controversy, Conservative party members were unhappy with him over the direction of Brexit (the UK’s exit from the European Union), planned tax rises in April 2022, and rising prices. The British media have also been scathing about his behaviour and futile excuses. Johnson’s future as prime minister was already being questioned and his best hope of survival always seemed to be a strong recovery from the Covid pandemic and a return to something like normal, but with the UK experiencing 150,000 cases a day and increasing hospitalisations and deaths, normal still seems some way off.
Throughout his time as prime minister, Johnson has never seemed really in control of events and to depend more on luck than judgement. Luck is important. Despite his many mistakes, Johnson has been lucky, but his past errors and chaotic approach may have caught up with him. With so many people after his blood, if he were cutting a vasilopita, Boris’ priority should not be finding the ‘flouri’ but keeping hold of the knife.