Partygate: “Clocks go forward, Boris goes backwards”

This quote from the Observer, in the title above, is particularly apt. Boris Johnson’s premiership started off on a promising note thanks to a huge electoral victory in 2019; now his reputation is at a new low having been forced to resign by a party he once led and now grilled in front of a parliamentary privileges committee. A series of mishaps have led to his fall but undoubtedly Partygate was the biggest blow to his career. 

The Partygate scandal involved 10 Downing Street hosting a series of parties and gatherings during lockdown, breaching COVID-19 rules. First reported on 30 November 2021, Johnson repeatedly refuted allegations that these meetings didn’t follow guidance, guidance was met “at all times”, he insisted. Johnson, no matter how self-assured, was mistaken. 

Sue Gray, a civil servant at the time, investigated the claims further and published a report on 25 May 2022, which, unsurprisingly, found the parties broke lockdown rules and therefore Johnson had lied to parliament consistently. 

Johnson was not only facing backlash for allowing the parties to go ahead but also for having potentially committing contempt of parliament.  Johnson’s career was on the rocks anyway thanks to his handling of the pandemic overall, and this set it spiralling further. The Privileges committee put forward an inquiry into Partygate almost a year ago and have since gathered enough evidence to hold a hearing on whether his dishonesty should be sanctioned. 

On 22 March 2023, the privileges committee held its hearing, which ran for three and a half hours, throughout which Johnson made a consistent defence that he did not deliberately mislead parliament. In fact, he even defended the provision of alcohol at these gatherings as “customary”, and he did not see any alleged drunken behaviour, even at a Christmas party that ended in red wine stains on the wall. Johnson went as far as to question the legitimacy of the cross-party committee who were asking questions that were “wrongly prejudicial” and “complete nonsense”. 

From the evidence gathered previously, along with Johnson’s account from the hearing, the committee will decide whether the former prime minister acted truthfully or not –  it’s in the hands of the privileges committee to determine the fate of his career. Yet, Johnson’s allies have urged him to refuse any conclusion that finds him having purposefully lied to parliament. A final verdict has not yet been published, and it could be weeks or months until one is made, but despite any genuine confusion Boris Johnson had over these events, it is clear the committee are not convinced, as he said, that: “Hand on heart I did not lie to the house.”

Overall, public reaction to the hearing remains critical. The day following it, Fiona Bruce asked members of the audience on Question Time to raise their hands if they believed Johnson was telling the truth at the hearing. Not a single hand was raised. 

Whilst press coverage has generally been negative and critical of Johnson’s behaviour, not everyone feels this way. Crucially, there are people in his constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, that still back him and would vote for him again. Disheartened, one woman admitted: “I think they’re all liars, but we all have to back somebody”. 

 While these opinions can be easily dismissed given the criticism that seems to outweigh it, his constituents’ opinions hold great weight. If the committee are to find Johnson to have purposefully misled the commons,  he will likely be suspended with a by-election in his constituency. 

Partygate broadly has shone a light on the cracks in government, when a prime minister is unable to follow rules they enforced while the rest of the UK were told they could not even see dying loved ones, and that prime minister is unable to recognise that they have done so.

 Public trust in government is on a clear decline, and a fast one given the failures of the successive two prime ministers; Truss’ assertion that she is “a fighter, not a quitter ” one day before her resignation sums up just how reliable prime ministers are right now. The public needs to know that politicians are held accountable for their actions. 

So, as a new season begins and we have gone back in time, we must ask ourselves, are we just going to return to another era of government corruption, or is it a fresh slate and will Sunak step up to the challenge? Considering the cost-of-living crisis we are in, and the fact Sunak was among those fined for Partygate, it is hard to be optimistic – this is the sentiment the Leader of the Opposition expressed last year, below, of Sunak’s responsibility.

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