What has changed? Having previously said that the Metropolitan police would not investigate Downing Street parties, Dame Cressida Dick confirmed on Tuesday that her force would look into the circumstances surrounding eight gatherings that are alleged to have taken place at Downing Street and other Whitehall premises, in breach of coronavirus regulations. Once again, the temperature has been raised in Westminster, and the normal business of government is displaced by feverish speculation.
For the prime minister’s supporters to direct people to ignore this, as some have tried to on the grounds that other issues are more important, is both ridiculous and insulting. Until the question of whether Boris Johnson and his staff broke the law is definitively answered, it will continue to be asked – and rightly so. At least the wait may soon be over, with the report by civil servant Sue Gray expected to be published shortly, in advance of the police’s enquiries.
Undeniably, the whole saga has elements of soap opera, with Mr Johnson’s enemies apparently drip-dripping information according to their own version of No 10’s news management grid. But diverting as the spectacle may be to some, as revelations of illicit celebrations continue to pile up, it is devastating to others who gave up so much during the lockdowns. The danger is that once the story has run its course, the aftertaste will be bitter. The hypocrisy of a leader who says one thing and does another, and who refuses to accept that rules his government told others to stick to (on pain of fines up to £10,000) also apply to him, is not only prompting anger with him but could poison attitudes to politicians and public life more generally.
The cavalier attitude to standards is not limited to partying and wallpaper. Resigning from the government in the House of Lords on Monday, Lord Agnew accused ministers of “arrogance” and “schoolboy errors” in their approach to detecting fraud. More than 1,000 companies that received government support were not even trading at the time they received Covid loans. As Labour’s Rachel Reeves put it, billions of pounds (HMRC estimates £5.8bn) have been “gifted to criminals”.
The urgency of the pandemic response no more justifies this than it did the scandal surrounding procurement of PPE equipment. Last month, a high court judge ruled that a secret “VIP lane”, through which ministerial contacts offering supplies were fast-tracked, was unlawful. The government now not only stands accused of disastrous mishandling of public money, but of illegality and refusing to put errors right. The contrast to the anxious messages about fiscal prudence that follow any suggestion of increasing benefits, or other public spending, could hardly be more glaring.
Flaws in the prime minister’s character, including dishonesty, are not news. The Met now has a crucial role to play, and must prove to the public that the occupants of high office are subject to the same laws as everyone else. But whatever the conclusion of partygate, wider concerns about the conduct of the government are unlikely to go away. Probity, responsibility and care from their leaders are what the public needs, at what remains for many an extremely difficult time. Tory MPs held back from trying to topple their leader last week, nervous for good reason about his most likely replacements. That may well change with the latest developments. It is surely evident that this prime minister is unfit for office.