Tom Rachman is a Canadian-British writer based in London. His new novel, set during COVID lockdown, comes out in 2023.
Last Christmas, scattered family members around Britain met up at grimy roadsides, forced by COVID restrictions to exchange gifts car-to car under the drizzle. Others sang carols to grandkids over Zoom, then ate the holiday meal alone. Thousands lay in hospital beds; many never reached 2021.
Against this backdrop, imagine a raucous party indoors, including a “Secret Santa” exchange, festive sweaters, booze and nibbles. Such an event was illegal. By numerous accounts, it took place at No. 10 Downing Street.
The secret held for almost a year, until the scandal exploded last week; it could force Boris Johnson from office. The Prime Minister denies attending any prohibited event. Indeed, his office says no such party happened. And if it did, it was within the rules. But, again, it didn’t. Unless it did.
The slovenly Conservative Party leader – known for old-fashioned elocutions and bad hair – enjoys such credibility that a poll showed only 9 per cent believed that no party occurred. More strikingly, a majority said for the first time that he should resign. Whenever he goes, a question will endure: How did this man last so long?
In his climb to power, Mr. Johnson fibbed the country into the disaster that is Brexit, which is already gutting industries, raising prices for consumers, provoking queues for gasoline and causing food shortages at supermarkets. As for the promised glories of leaving the European Union? It’s hard to think of one.
The key Brexit strategist, Dominic Cummings, who followed Mr. Johnson into government (then left on bad terms), depicts the Prime Minister as a dangerous fool, nicknaming him “the trolley,” as in a shopping cart that needs steering. According to Mr. Cummings, “the trolley” only understood a central aspect of Brexit – that it meant quitting the European customs union – four years after having fronted the “Leave” campaign.
When Mr. Johnson finally grasped this fact in September, 2020, Mr. Cummings wrote, “The PM’s face was priceless. He sat back in his chair and looked around the room with appalled disbelief and shook his head. Horrified officials’ phones pinged around the Cabinet table. One very senior official texted me, ‘Now I realise how you managed to get Brexit done.’ ”
Mr. Johnson was similarly detail-oriented regarding COVID, failing to attend five top-level emergency meetings in the early stages of the global pandemic. Disastrously, he clung to a mad policy of delaying restrictions, even as coronavirus spread exponentially. His government’s failures led to “many thousands of deaths,” a parliamentary report said in October.
Britain, with more than 10 million cases of COVID, has suffered a death toll of more than 145,000. Mr. Johnson himself was nearly among them, scorning the scientific advice in March, 2020, to gleefully shake hands with hospital patients – after which he tested positive, and landed in intensive care. Thankfully, British researchers helped create the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the rollout here was swift. Oddly, this was not matched by a serious prevention strategy, with Mr. Johnson seeming impatient to be the hero who told everyone to get back to the pubs.
Government bungling went beyond Brexit and COVID. On the day that the Christmas-party scandal exploded, another outrage came to light, regarding Afghanistan. A junior Foreign Office staffer testified Tuesday that, during the August evacuation from Kabul, officials didn’t even read thousands of e-mails Afghan allies had sent to British officials, many begging for their children to be saved as the Taliban closed in. This 25-year-old, Raphael Marshall, said he was sometimes the only person monitoring the inbox, and didn’t know what to do. But, Mr. Marshall said, the Prime Minister did act, granting the request of an animal charity to charter a plane for cats and dogs, while leaving humans behind.
Mr. Johnson denies responsibility, as he often does. What helps him deflect so much is a collaborative right-wing press that – despite dwindling readership – remains influential. Publications such as the quintessential Tory broadsheet The Daily Telegraph (where Mr. Johnson was a correspondent and columnist), treat the Prime Minister as if he were their “trolley” – just the chap to do their bidding. In exchange: absolution.
When ITV News released a video Tuesday of Downing Street staff snickering about how to spin reports of a Christmas party, fury spread around the country. All the personal sacrifices – all the isolation, and the cancelled funerals, and the irreplaceable lost time – while those at the top scoffed!
Members of the Conservative Party grew flustered, with constituent complaints pouring in. At first, The Telegraph bypassed the story on the front page of its early edition. But the damning clip had escaped, was circulating online, and the matter could not be overlooked.
Many people recalled previous cases: a notorious quarantine violation by Mr. Cummings, when he was still Mr. Johnson’s key ally; and when Health Minister Matt Hancock was caught on video ignoring physical-distancing rules at the office, making out with a woman who was not his wife. Rumors of other government Christmas parties emerged, including one reportedly at the Prime Minister’s flat.
But Mr. Johnson is not necessarily finished. He rose among a crop of world leaders – men unbound by the guardrails of dignity or shame – who thrive through their entertainment value. Donald Trump is another case, albeit more violent and less witty.
Whereas Mr. Trump hides ineptitude with aggression, Mr. Johnson employs a more English dodge. When caught out, he resorts to the endearing Hugh Grant stammer, musses his hair and rebounds with a charming quip.
“Charm is the great English blight,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. “It spots and kills anything it touches.”
But charm is only Chapter One in a story of disappointment. Chapter Two brings the other English blight: resentment. Formerly, the class system is where such bitterness settled. Today, British resentment over economic disparity and national decline roam in search of a target, whether the European Union, or British politicians, or “the elites.”
Mr. Johnson gained power from cynicism, and gave reason for more. Saddest of all, Britain’s charmer-in-chief – after the laughter subsides – will leave behind a diminished country and an unfunny joke.
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