No doubt the attorney-general has been rummaging through Covid rules to discover a reason why having a knees-up in Number 10 was perfectly lawful, but the prime minister is not much of an electoral asset
The morning after the night before … and not a minister is to be seen in the media. Radio silence. The Saj has pulled out. The only stirring in the undergrowth is the silent arrival, by government electric Jaguar, in Downing Street of the attorney-general – Suella Braverman.
Her job is usually described as being the government’s solicitor. This is technically the case, and her predecessor, the much-maligned Sir Geoffrey Cox occasionally had to dispense unwelcome advice about Brexit and international law to his prime ministers, Theresa May and, more to the point, Boris Johnson. Partly for that reason (“not a team player”), Sir Geoffrey is no longer in Johnson’s cabinet. He has been replaced by the less legally distinguished but possibly more eager to please Braverman. Her job, so to speak, is to give bad but helpful legal advice to the prime minister, and tell him things he wants and needs to hear. He needs a few loopholes to squeeze himself through before Keir Starmer gets his hands on him at Prime Minister’s Questions. Otherwise, it will be a case of “Never glad confident morning again!” for this lost leader.
So it seems he’s going to take a legalistic strategy for his defence: “no rules were broken”, party or no party. No doubt the A-G and her team have spent the night rummaging through the tier 3 rules and Covid, the 1984 Public Health Act, the 1689 Bill of Rights, Magna Carta (she did not die in vain) and anything else in their law library to discover some spurious reason why having a knees-up in Number 10 was in fact perfectly lawful. Something about Crown property or executive privilege, which may henceforth be known as the “Johnson clause”. Any shred of jurisprudence from a dusty law report will do. Anyhow he wasn’t there. Then the PM can tell the LOTO that the A-G says it’s all alright, so you can shut up.
It is the mark of the man that he can’t face up to the truth, and takes cover under nice legal distinctions, such as the difference between a “gathering” and a “party”, where the law is silent. The facts, as the lawyers say, are not in doubt. There was, it has been variously admitted, drinks, dancing, games, nibbles, cheese and wine, a “spread”, “snacks”, a “fictional business meeting” and a Secret Santa. It wasn’t socially distanced. Does that constitute a social gathering? To Johnson it might or might not, but it’s irrelevant because the guidelines (weaker in any case than law) were followed.
It’s the usual Johnson cheek. He is perfectly happy to act unlawfully when it suits him (eg the prorogation of parliament in 2019, ruled null and void by the Supreme Court), but is also keen to pose as punctilious statesman carefully following the letter of the law, when he’s got nothing left to fall back on. It shouldn’t work, and it won’t so far as public anger is concerned. Even if he was not at the party it seems implausible that he would not have known about the “gathering” in advance.
If it somehow escaped his prior notice and he wasn’t invited along to this or other parties (it is said his wife is an especially sociable hostess), then that does seems strange. If about 50 boozed-up braying hacks were “dancing” (admitted by Downing Street) it’s hard to imagine them doing so without generating noise. Unless Carrie had the Downing Street flat soundproofed, then they surely heard what was going on even in that vast complex. Perhaps Carrie popped down to say hi and enjoy a glass of champagne. Maybe old friends from the press lobby were out and about, either at this do or another one. It’s nice to catch up with old friends. Allegra Stratton wasn’t there, ironically.
A few weeks ago I confidently predicted that Johnson would be gone by Christmas. Things do seem to be heading that way, and the by-election in Shropshire North, exquisitely well-timed, should give Johnson a further shove towards the door even if the Tories just manage to hang on to the seat.
In Old Bexley and Sidcup, the turnout collapsed and the swing to Labour was about 10 per cent, a bad omen even discounting the cold and protest vote effects. There is only one thing the Tory MPs care about, and that’s being in power. If needs be, they can be ruthless. Right now Johnson doesn’t seem to be much of an electoral asset, and they don’t have much to lose by ditching him and giving themselves a fresh start. It won’t be long now.