For the rudderless Marie Celeste that is the Conservative Party, each day seems to herald a new public relations disaster. Sometimes, like buses, their catastrophes arrive in twos and threes. First, the Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Then, within hours, yesterday morning Reigate MP Crispin Blunt took a break from telling feminists not to worry about protecting women-only spaces to defend Khan against what he described as a “dreadful miscarriage of justice” and an “international scandal”. Then, in the afternoon, came the bombshell that the Prime Minister and Chancellor were among 30 government figures and officials to be issued fixed-penalty notices for breaking Covid restrictions.
No 10 has confirmed that the Prime Minister’s fine relates to the birthday gathering held in the Cabinet Room in June 2020, where he was supposedly “ambushed” with a surprise cake. Interestingly, details of the event, including Rishi Sunak’s attendance, were quite matter-of-factly reported at the time – to little fanfare.
Many will argue that Sunak was lying when he told Parliament last December, “No, I did not attend any parties.” But another likely interpretation is that he honestly didn’t realise he had broken any rules. If so, this would be as much a testament to the idiocy and complexity of those restrictions as to the hypocrisy of the politicians who imposed them.
It is sometimes hard to recall the more surreal excesses of that time; alongside the criminalisation of protest and rule by ministerial decree, and the draconian measures to appease the fearful. In one typical case, London pub landlord Nigel Ince received a £1,390 court bill after punters were “caught” standing up while drinking on his premises. Mr Ince told police officers that he didn’t realise this was against the rules, believing the only requirement was that drinkers should order a “substantial meal” alongside their pints, and he’d made a point of serving scotch eggs.
Ever-changing, incomprehensible to most rational people, there was a kind of cosmic absurdity to these rules, which made them near-impossible to follow and wore down our intellects and patience in the process. Many proved unenforceable, too. After a 12-month review, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that not a single person had been successfully prosecuted under the Coronavirus Act despite almost 300 being charged. The vast majority of prosecutions ended up being withdrawn because the police – baffled by the constantly changing laws – had mistakenly charged people with the wrong offence.
That is why his personal flouting of the rules was, if anything, the least of Johnson’s lockdown misdemeanours. When the photo emerged of Dominic Cummings, the PM and his wife along with aides at the now-infamous wine and cheese gathering in the No 10 garden, many commentators erupted at the thought of the rule-breaking itself. The real problem, however, wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe that the rules applied to them – it was that they knew them to be stupid.
Socialising outside carried minimal risk, something those in No 10 appeared to understand full well by then. Yet they continued to insist, officially, on incoherent follies such as bans on meeting outdoors, with all the misery and isolation they entailed. While those with the best access to virus data scorned these pettifogging measures, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to let their fellow citizens make the same informed risk calculation. Instead, they reverted to scare tactics and a too-clever-by-half “nudge” mentality rather than simply being straight with people. It was no way to treat a population of grown-ups.
So, having presided over this ludicrous regime, there is something oddly fitting about the idea of the PM and Chancellor now being hoist by the equally bonkers petard of attending a party whose status as a party is itself debatable.
And how ironic that the pair appear to have fallen foul of laws so poorly drafted that many of those who supposedly “broke” them ended up “getting away with it”.
Perhaps war in Ukraine and the public’s dissipating interest in lockdown will cause the court of popular opinion to move on. Sunak’s stock in the Tory party plummeting faster than that of a pumpkin salesman on November 1 may also help the PM, by scotching any prospect of a serious leadership challenge.
The world of Westminster has an inbuilt preference for action, resignations, and constantly evolving story arcs but it is more likely that the Conservatives will lurch, zombie-like, towards the local elections, having sustained further reputational damage – but not yet enough to be terminal.
Yet amid the public’s righteous anger, the fundamental stupidity and infantilisation of those rules cannot be forgotten. Once under way, the Covid inquiry will probably descend into a chorus of “why didn’t we lock down sooner?” or “why did our politicians break so many of their own rules?” But there are bigger questions to be asked, too. Why did our lawmakers write so many rules that were self-evidently ridiculous? And why did so many in the media, and all but a small handful of MPs, line up to support them?
The conclusion remains: we must never be taken for fools again.