Boris Johnson is guilty of misleading the House of Commons and, even more seriously, of putting “the lockdown laws on the statute book in the first place, framing them in such a way as to criminalise everyday interactions”. That’s the damning verdict of the Spectator, a publication the Prime Minister himself once edited, in its leading article today.
The Prime Minister remains guilty – most explicitly of misleading the House of Commons when he denied that any parties took place. He has shown a serious failure, too, in not learning from his mistakes. It is no use him or anyone else in Government complaining about the triviality of the charges. His Government put the lockdown laws on the statute book in the first place, framing them in such a way as to criminalise everyday interactions.
Now the Prime Minister’s allies plead for clemency. It is in human nature, they say, to gather to bid farewell to a departing friend or colleague, to offer friendship and succour. Quite so. Johnson’s allies further argue that, as he raised his glass in a toast, he did so in a work capacity – as evidenced by the presence of his red box. This Jesuitical defence would be more plausible if the Government’s laws had not seen ordinary people dragged to court and found guilty of far milder offences. Let us consider his defence for the leaving party: “I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service – which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership. Particularly important when people need to feel that their contributions had been appreciated and to keep morale as high as possible.It is a damning – and accurate – charge against the Prime Minister that he is no man of principle
Does he realise, even now, that he made it illegal for anyone to do this during lockdown? Where, in his lockdown rules, was the exemption for the ‘essential duties of leadership?’ Where was the clause allowing those outside the ruling elite to have a regular ‘wine-time Friday?’ Does he realise that he personally used the powers of his office to send the police after anyone else who would have attended a gathering to salute a departing colleague? Or, for that matter, to console a friend, visit a dying relative or even attend a funeral in numbers greater than stipulated by the staff of No. 10.
The Prime Minister said it was ‘right’ to salute former colleagues in a leaving party. He’s quite correct in that it is a decent, humane thing to do. But consider the childminder in Manchester who was fined for delivering a birthday card to a child in her care: was it ‘right’ for her to do so? Of course. Did this help her, when police intercepted her to enforce the Prime Minister’s rules and took her to court? Not one bit. His needless, draconian lockdown rules were enforced by police upon millions of people, with tens of thousands taken to court. No one – not the pensioner in his allotment, not the mother celebrating her child’s birthday with two friends – had the chance to argue before the magistrates that what they were doing was ‘right’.
When police went after two women in Derbyshire for the crime of walking through a park with takeaway coffee, one might also ask: was it ‘right’ for them to seek each other’s company and avail themselves of the basic liberty of a free country? Of course. Did Johnson’s laws prohibit this? Unforgivably: yes. And this is the point.
So to hear him now talk about what was ‘right’ and ‘decent’ is hard to swallow. This magazine argued for him to decriminalise lockdown rules, to offer guidance and leave people to judge what is ‘right’ – as was being done with much success in Sweden and several states of America. But Johnson refused to do so, preferring to turn Britain into a police state. While having every intention of flouting the laws when he considered it opportune to do so.
How ironic that in the November 2020 photograph of Boris Johnson raising a toast to the spin doctor he had forced to resign, a copy of The Spectator can be seen resting on the table. This magazine had argued against that month’s lockdown and its needless criminalisation of everyday life. By then, the logic for lockdowns had collapsed. But, thanks in part to a supine opposition, No. 10 pressed ahead anyway. Those leaving drinks took place when all other social gatherings had been banned under pain of huge fines.
Lockdowns involved the passing of the most damaging, illiberal laws in British postwar history. The social and economic cost is still being counted. Johnson is guilty not simply of breaking his own rules, but of failing to assess if those rules even worked. The sheer scale of the law demanded a rigorous assessment of the policies behind it, but no serious cost-benefit analysis was conducted. Nor were studies commissioned to ask why infections seemed to have peaked before the previous lockdown. And no one is now asking why, if lockdown was the only means of holding back a Covid wave, Sweden has done so well without ever imposing one.
One thing the editorial omits is that the current Editor, Fraser Nelson, himself threw his support behind the third national lockdown in January 2021, as well as having supported the first. I’m not aware he has apologised for that, but perhaps in light of this blistering editorial he will.
Worth reading in full.