As rule-breaking scandals continue to break, Johnson’s charm is wearing off

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Several rule-breaking events stand out in the pandemic. The Barnard Castle eye test, for example, and Matt Hancock’s smooch with an aide. These moments shocked the nation for the blatant breaking of Covid restrictions; ministers and political advisers disregarding rules they themselves designed and implemented – rules that were apparently fit for everyone else, but not them. These moments should not come as a shock anymore, since they have become so common. Nevertheless they do, and we have just witnessed another one.

After a week of denying that a rule-breaking Downing Street party took place in the run-up to Christmas last year, footage leaked to ITV shows No 10 staff joking about the incident. The video shows Boris Johnson’s then spokesperson Allegra Stratton in a mock press briefing, four days after the party is reported to have taken place. A special adviser asks: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night — do you recognise those reports?” Stratton laughs and replies: “I went home.” Asked if Johnson would condone a Christmas party, she says: “What’s the answer?”  Someone in the room jokes that it “wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”. Stratton replies: “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting… this fictional party was a business meeting… it was not socially distanced.”

Reacting to the video, Keir Starmer said: “People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and – tragically for – unable to say goodbye to their loved ones. They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same.” The Labour leader added: “To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.” He has called on Johnson to apologise. Starmer devoted part of last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions to the allegations after the initial story broke. We can expect him to do the same again today. Adding to the ammo, The Mirror has another scoop: it appears that Gavin Williamson also had a party last year, with “drinks and canapés” in the departmental cafe. The Department for Education has admitted that it took place and acknowledged it was ill-advised. The rules at the time stated: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.”

Outright lies to the electorate – whether on Brexit, building new hospitals, raising taxes or dodgy dealings with party donors – have so far occasionally affected poll ratings but not inflicted electoral punishment on Johnson. He has been painted by many as a loveable rogue, with a relatable desire to reject rules, his painfully out-of-touch manner just a harmless caricature of his Etonian background. But this pandemic has seen the Prime Minister push that to the limits. The purpose of Johnson is to be the Tories’ charming man – but the charm is wearing off.

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