By Molly Pollock
Along with further denials of any breach of the covid regulations in Downing Street over Partygate, despite the Met’s issuing of a first tranche of 20 fixed penalty notices with £50 fines, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now conceding that under his government the least well off families will now face a choice between heating or eating.
Like chancellor Rishi Sunak, Johnson doesn’t appear to have a problem with that dilemma. The leader who knows nothing but parties, £800 a roll wallpaper, and holidays in the sun paid for by wealthy donors, can’t conceive the absolute misery a sizeable proportion of the UK population now faces. That’s presumably why he doesn’t have a problem with the imposition by Sunak of a National Insurance hike, rising from 12% to 13.25% of an employee’s wages over a £9,880 a year threshold. That will hit the lowest paid hardest at a time of soaring energy bills, higher prices and rising inflation. “I’ve got absolutely no problem with it. We’ve got to do the difficult things.”
However, the Prime Minister’s list of difficult things still doesn’t appear to include admitting anything about Partygate. Photographs taken by taxpayer-funded official photographers for Number 10 were said to be amongst evidence handed to Sue Gray for her investigation into the parties.
The Cabinet Office refused to confirm or deny the existence of photographs of the Number 10 ‘gatherings’ after these official photographs were requested under freedom of information laws. The reason given was that “such information could prejudice the investigation, and contravene the principle of “fairness” under data protection regulations.”
As well as demands for the official photographs to be made public there are also demands for the names of senior civil servants and all ministers fined to be published. After her name was leaked, one minister, Helen MacNamara, the former head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, made public that she had received a fine. Others are keeping quiet, though must be apprehensive that Sue Gray might name them when her report is eventually published. Publication, though, along with further fines, won’t be until after the local elections in May. Tories obviously fear bad publicity could harm their campaign.
Meanwhile there is a concerted effort by cabinet ministers, touring media studios, to play down Partygate and save the reputation, and job, of the Prime Minister who has admitted attending some of the parties. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in the hope of relegating the gatherings to insignificance, referred to them as fluff. Some say even if Johnson is fined it doesn’t mean he needs to resign as PM despite a fine underlining his lying to parliament – by convention a resigning offence.
Others have pointed to Johnson’s leadership on the world stage over the Russian war on Ukraine. This line has been rubbished by many both in the UK, the US and other EU countries where the UK Prime Minister isn’t held in great esteem. Video clips of the recent NATO meeting showed Johnson aimlessly wandering about on his own, slouching, hands in pockets, whilst those around him greeted their fellow leaders with warmth. Johnson is not the statesman of his idol, Churchill. And the UK, since Brexit, isn’t the big beast on the world stage that it once was.
Others, irrespective of Partygate and whether or not Johnson is fined and lied to parliament, believe that during a war in Europe is not the time to change leaders. What happened in Number 10 during pandemic lockdowns is in the past, they insist, and now we must concentrate on the present. After all, apart from international conflicts, there are local elections to be won. And in Scotland more Tory controlled councils will mean more monies can go directly to them to spend as they want rather than to the Scottish Government to deliver on its manifesto pledges and its wellbeing agenda. Undermining the Scottish Parliament and government is never far from Tory minds.
Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda posted a video about the Partygate saga on Twitter. His view sums up what many feel.