Johnson survives, but partygate tarnishes government’s image

Those who have watched him for decades, known him since his days in Oxford, are not surprised at the rows with him at the epicenter

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 29 May 2022, 10:46 PM

Teflon is the brand name of a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene, which is widely used in the manufacture of a range of products. There are claims about the chemical’s adverse effects on health, but it is best known for one quality: when pans and other utensils are coated with it, food does not stick when cooked under intense heat, which ensures longevity and also makes them easy to wash. So known is the ‘non-stick’ quality that it has become something of a metaphor – particularly in politics – ever since the chemical was discovered in early 20th century. Leaders who last long in politics, survive several challenges, are supposed to have Teflon-like qualities: allegations, accusations, charges and worse just don’t seem to stick to them.

One leader who has attracted the metaphor is Boris Johnson, whose tenure in Downing Street since the 2019 general election includes a series of events that would have led to the resignation of any other prime minister. Those who have watched him for decades, known him since his days in Oxford, or during his career in journalism, are not surprised at the rows with him at the epicenter. The most known controversy under his watch has been partygate: parties held in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns, violating the laws he imposed while the British public followed them closely, provoking one of the most damaging allegations in British politics: ‘it is one rule for them and another for us’.

After months of screaming headlines, inquiries and penalties imposed by the police on the prime minister, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and many members of the Downing Street staff, Johnson last week again appeared to survive. A long-awaited report by civil servant Sue Gray provided more details of the parties and again criticised the leadership (she previously made strong observations in the interim report), but it fell short of being the political guillotine that Johnson’s critics expected it would be. After Gray’s report was released on Wednesday (May 25), he spent the day apologising profusely in the House of Commons, in a press conference televised live, and before party MPs. But he also insisted that he believed at the time that the occasions were not parties but work events, that many did not remain work events after he had left the scene, and recalled the changes he had made in the management structure and top officials in his office since the row broke, saying: “I am humbled and I have learnt a lesson”.

But as anyone who uses a Teflon-coated pan knows, when the chemical wears thin from overuse, the ‘non-stick’ quality also withers. There is no overt appetite for now among Conservative MPs to trigger a leadership challenge, particularly in the context of major challenges such as the rising cost of living, higher energy prices and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Some believe it is this wider context that has helped him scrape through the row and survive: he denied any link to partygate, but the day after Gray’s report was published, his government announced a multi-billion pound package to help people struggling with the cost of living and higher energy costs, for a day shifting the focus of headlines.

But there are also reports of a growing belief in the party that Johnson, who delivered a large majority in the 2019 election, may now be less of an electoral asset and more of a liability as the 2024 election approaches. There are already signs of this in the recent elections to local bodies (Conservatives suffered major losses in May, when some party candidates sought to distance themselves from the national leadership). On June 23, by-elections are due in two parliamentary seats that were held by the party.

A key theme in the current conundrum is standards in British public life, for long held up as a reference in the Commonwealth and the wider world. There has been much hand-wringing about the lowering of standards in recent months (Johnson is also facing a parliamentary inquiry on whether he knowingly misled the House of Commons on the issue of parties in Downing Street). Many despair over the fact that for the first time in British history, a sitting prime minister has been penalised by the police for violating law (he was issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid rules), but that has not resulted in his resignation. Johnson has faced persistent tough questions over his relationship with the truth but has managed to overcome several challenges in the face of severe criticism.

At the heart of standards in public life and the Ministerial Code is what is called the Nolan Principles, or Seven Principles of Public Life, drawn up in 1995 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, names after its first chairman, Michael Nolan, a former judge. The seven principles apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder, including those who are elected or appointed to public office: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Any breach of the standards is expected to lead to resignation.

But Johnson opened another front when the Ministerial Code was revised on Friday (May 27), as part of contentious reforms recommended by the committee in 2021, that ministers who break rules in a ‘minor’ way will not be expected to resign, provoking another welter of protest and criticism that he is trying to “save his skin” and “watering down” standards in public life.

Under the new guidelines, ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will still be expected to resign, with the code saying: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”, but for the first time, it has introduced the idea of a ‘minor’ breach and sanctions “which the prime minister may decide to issue in a given case”; the sanctions for breaching the code could include a “public apology, remedial action, or removal of ministerial salary for a period”. The government says it would be ‘disproportionate’ for a minister to lose job for ‘any breach’ of the ministerial code. Since the responsibility to enforce the code rests with the prime minister, the revised version in the context of ‘Partygate’ can be expected to keep the row and Johnson in more headlines in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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