In an attempt to belittle the Sue Gray report and the police investigation into breaches of lockdown laws in Downing Street, some of the more loyal Conservative MPs have joked that the whole scandal is about a birthday cake.
Not only is such banter in poor taste, it is actively damaging their prime minister’s slim chance of surviving the revelations in the report. It is not all about a birthday party cake, or wine or cheese platters for that matter. What Partygate was – and is – about is Boris Johnson and the political culture he inculcated; not least the sense of entitlement and “one rule for us few and another rule for the many outside”.
One misguided Tory MP even suggests that everyone in the country was breaking the rules. The great majority were not. The great majority, of all kinds of political persuasions and one, played by the rules, to protect themselves and others, and out of respect for the law.
They made sacrifices – unable to celebrate the birthdays of loved ones, even when it would turn out to be their last birthday. Unable to say goodbye to the terminally ill. Families effectively separated. Funerals without many mourners and without the salve of a drink after the service.
Socially distanced misery was endured by millions because they wanted to do the right thing. The Queen set a fine example, as did many others. In Downing Street, the culture – we now know – was rather different: contemptuous of others, and contemptible.
People care about these things, as well as caring about the cost-of-living crisis, the freedom of Ukraine, social care and much else. It is not a zero-sum game. The voters have a certain – usually low – expectation of how their politicians behave, but not to the extent that lying is the default reflex to every problem.
This is a further reason why the prime minister has become such a liability for his party, though some refuse to accept the reality. It would now appear that Mr Johnson was inaccurate and less than candid in the public statements he made about the evacuation of Pen Farthing and his menagerie from Kabul during the emergency evacuation last August.
It was a controversial matter at the time because the concern was that Afghans who had assisted the UK and US would be displaced in the airlift by cats and dogs. There were limited spaces on a limited number of flights.
It seems likely that the issue reached the prime minister’s desk. Some say his wife, Carrie, an animal welfare champion, had some influence in this matter. The prime minister at the time maintained that he had not approved any prioritisation of the animal airlift.
Now, leaked emails made available to MPs by a whistleblower suggest that Mr Johnson did indeed approve the operation and offer his support. There seems, not for the first time, to be some discrepancy between the public impression he gave at the time – “complete nonsense” – and what was really happening.
One leaked email states that the situation at the Nowzad animal charity set up by the former royal marine has “received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.
The lesson from this latest story is that the government – and the Conservative Party, and the country – is never more than a day or two away from some fresh scandal; usually with its origins in the prime minister’s uneasy relationship with the truth, and with the demands of his office.
It has been a way of life for him, according to even the most sympathetic biographers, that he has a habit of pushing his luck and being economical with the truth if he gets found out.
Indeed, many would say the 2016 Brexit Leave campaign and the Conservative victory in the 2019 general election were built on such mendacious foundations. He has always had a habit of bouncing back from his misfortunes, but the point is that in order to recover he first had to be fired from various jobs, or leave them voluntarily before the truth caught up with him – as with the London mayoralty and his personal IT consultant, Jennifer Arcuri.
Under the most intense of scrutiny, it looks increasingly as though he won’t get away with his old tricks again. Even if he does, he will be a permanent source of embarrassment to his party and the nation. He might not mind – but do his MPs?