Since the COVID-19 pandemic has begun, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has lurched from crisis to crisis and has been accused of public health failures along with rampant levels of corruption. Despite this, last week’s accusations of a Christmas party held at Downing Street during the height of the UK’s winter lockdown, has arguably been the most damaging situation this government has experienced so far.
After successive ministers took to the airwaves to deny that such a party ever took place, an additional story laid bare the extent of the deception. A video was leaked of Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s former spokesperson, laughing and joking with Tory aides about a ‘cheese and wine’ event held in No. 10, with no social distancing. The resulting press coverage was furious, with even typically Conservative-sympathising newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph turning on the government for flouting the rules whilst ordinary Britons were kept apart from their loved ones during the Christmas period.
Later reports emerged that up to seven alleged Christmas parties were held across government and the Conservative Party, including one at the Department of Education, which was acknowledged, and another by mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s team at CCHQ. Another party is even alleged to have been held at the Prime Minister’s flat.
Johnson’s strategy of ‘never apologise, never explain’ has served him well over the years. Some commentators have given him the moniker of the ‘Teflon’ Prime Minister as negative story after story failed to stick, arguably as a result of this strategy. However, his line delivered at last week’s PMQs, that he “shares the anger” over the Stratton video whilst maintaining that the party never took place, won him few sympathisers.
The introduction of Plan B restrictions to deal with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant was met with an immediate backlash, from those who argue the government has lost its moral authority as a result of the alleged parties, and Conservative MPs who argue that the government should no longer be imposing rules that curtail civil liberties. Some critics have even said that the latest restrictions are the latest example of the government’s use of a ‘dead cat’ strategy, a term given to when a dramatic, headline-seizing subject is introduced to divert media and political discourse away from a topic that is comparatively more damaging to the government.
However, what is also possible, is that the furore over the alleged parties, the repeated denial of their taking place and the scapegoating of Allegra Stratton has masked a series of more important political debates. Over the last few weeks, a succession of authoritarian bills has been introduced or passed through Parliament, that when put together, build an alarmingly Orwellian picture.
Perhaps the most egregious measure out of the new package of legislation is the Nationality and Borders bill, which gives the government broad new powers to strip citizenship away from millions without notice. Analysis by the News Statesman has shown that close to six million people in England and Wales and 41% of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds could become eligible to be stripped of their citizenship, rendering them stateless if they fall foul of the law. Given the recent history of the Windrush Scandal and the current Home Secretary’s hardline anti-immigration rhetoric, there should be genuine concern over how the government intends to wield these new powers.
The Home Office also introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, largely in response to recent protests concerning climate change and racial inequality. By giving police additional stop-and-search powers and criminalising several forms of peaceful protest and direct action, the bill represents a serious erosion of civil liberties. Critics have also argued that the proposed overhaul of the Human Rights Act, a long-term goal of Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, is driven by political rhetoric and puts the government above the law. The new plans will make it harder for foreign nationals accused of crimes to use human rights law to mount a legal challenge against authorities.
Campaign groups have highlighted concerns that the new health and social care bill, which is currently passing through the House of Lords, is accelerating the process of dismantling and privatising the NHS, as the decision-making process is being taken away from local authorities and given to 42 new private sector-influenced boards, referred to in the bill as integrated care boards (ICBs).
Furthermore, As Camilla Cavendish has pointed out in the FT, perhaps most concerning of all is the shift in political norms and the introduction of new ministerial powers brought about as a result of the urgency of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes are allowing the state to pass legislation in a way that completely bypasses parliamentary oversight.
The hypocrisy of holding Christmas parties and attempting to evade scrutiny whilst many hundred were prosecuted for doing the same, and many millions more made huge sacrifices to stick to the rules and stop the spread of the virus, has led to understandable public outcry. And, whilst Boris Johnson will no doubt be concerned about a recent slide in the polls ahead of a potentially damaging by-election in North Shropshire, the outroar has allowed the government to evade the media interrogation it may have expected. In a time when the government should have faced serious scrutiny for the passage of a succession of draconian laws, the spotlight turned firmly away.