I met my parents in a way the rules allowed: outside in the local park, sitting on deckchairs at least two metres apart
It didn’t take much effort to remember exactly what I was doing on the afternoon of 19 June 2020. Boris Johnson was celebrating his birthday – and so was I. But while he marked the occasion by sharing cake and tea with 30 colleagues, his wife and a designer of garish wallpaper, my afternoon looked a little different. There was cake, but that’s where the similarities end.
The afternoon of my birthday was the first time I’d seen my parents, who live locally and are usually a central part of my family’s life, since the beginning of the first lockdown. We met in a way the rules allowed: outside in the local park, sitting on deckchairs at least two metres apart from one another. We bought takeaway coffees from a local cafe to avoid having to share mugs. We brought our own individual cakes with us, again to make sure we kept ourselves safe.
I saw my parents alone that day because if my husband and then two-year-old daughter had come with me there would have been no way to explain why she couldn’t have a cuddle from her grandparents. She had been used to seeing them weekly, yet had spent time with them only through screens for the last four months – more than an eighth of her entire life.
Unfathomably, looking back now 18 months later, we also fretted a bit about the exchange of a birthday present and some flowers. There was some performative slicking of hands with gel and a discussion about whether I should leave them unwrapped in a cupboard for 72 hours. Happily we didn’t go that far. But there was a reason for our particular caution and fear: I was at the time almost six months pregnant, diagnosed with gestational diabetes and terrified of contracting Covid while expecting.
I remember this afternoon in the park so clearly because despite being almost six months pregnant, it was the first time my mother had seen my growing belly. As this was my second child, my shape had changed fast. I looked completely different to the last time I’d seen her. She wanted to touch it, a gesture of welcome to her new grandchild. I said no.
The afternoon was a pleasant one, but it was cold for June and we wore jackets as we sat outside. We chatted and shared lockdown stories but after a couple of hours we said our goodbyes. There wasn’t much else we could do.
As a journalist it’s not beyond my imaginings that somebody I know could have told me, that day, what was going on in Downing Street that same afternoon in celebration of the PM’s special day. If they had I would have been devastated: my family felt hollowed out that summer, constantly anxious. We were all lonely without each other. Would I have preferred to meet my parents indoors and with their granddaughter? Of course. Would a 10 minute catch-up with 30 acquaintances have been invigorating at a personally tough time? Absolutely. But, of course, we were following the rules.
There has been some valid commentary on social media this week reminding voters that while the unpicking of the endemic partying culture inside Boris Johnson’s office goes on, everything else stops. Almost every day there is a new revelation plunging politics into another crisis, with any remaining forelock tuggers wheeled out to do comic broadcast interviews in support of the PM, which tie them up in linguistic knots. Was it a working meeting with cake? Or an accidental gathering?
While they’re deciding on that, the government’s policy agenda – the one it was actually elected to deliver – sits languishing on desks. Meanwhile, the backbenchers abandon constituency work as they try to decide whether and when to file a letter of no confidence in their leader to the 1922 committee. A prolonged pause like this, at a time when there is a threat of conflict in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis is opening up huge inequalities at home, is dangerous.
What’s more concerning to me, at least, is how the time was found for so many parties and get-togethers in the meeting rooms that should have been hosting the conversations, briefings and conferences that dictated the British response to a unique social crisis in our lifetimes. One event might (at some stretch) have been written off as a chance for government staff and MPs under extreme pressure to find a way to deal with the emotional fallout of running the country through frightening times. Instead the parties apparently reached endemic status inside and outside Number 10.
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I find recalling the days and nights of my own life at this stage upsetting. I was pregnant and not comfortably so, feeling very unwell most days, with a toddler to look after and no childcare or family help, of course. My husband and I were also both trying to work, so we took it in shifts. I got up at 5.30am and was at my desk from 6am to midday (I split my part-time hours over five days a week to cope), while my husband worked midday til 9pm or often much later. While we weren’t working we were doing childcare. We had no respite. We were exhausted. Our story is not unique: every working family struggled with the same pressures. It put a toll on relationships, on family life, on teams of colleagues.
Call me naive, but I assumed that inside Whitehall, civil servants, MPs and others involved in steering the nation through the pandemic were working just as hard. Harder. If you’d have asked me then, I’d have said they had it worse. As key workers they had the luxury of childcare while they worked, but they also had the moral responsibility of taking decisions that we all feel the consequences of. Cake, wine, cheese – none of these had a place in that picture.
As a natural ally of the left, the unravelling of Boris Johnson’s government-by-booze-up has been painfully amusing to watch. The knowledge that the man who shared my birthday and yet none of the deprivations of that year fills me with contemptuous rage. The recognition that this is what he will be remembered for – a series of frivolous drinks parties and a failure to demonstrate any kind of statesmanship – is some consolation. But not much.