“It’s all baked in.” That’s the line you’ll hear from lots of very clever political observers and commentators when it comes to Boris Johnson’s personal improprieties. The theory runs that the public know that Johnson is unwedded to truth and unconcerned by morality. They voted for him anyway. And no new revelation will harm him politically because everyone knew all along. And the thing about this theory is that it is true. Until it is not.
It is easy to look like a prophet when you predict that the status quo will be maintained because the status quo usually is maintained. But nothing in life is permanent and eventually even the most forgiving friend or spouse or electorate can snap, suddenly, and a door is closed. It might not be the worst thing that finally does it. It may even seem petty. But when it comes it is often final and bitter, and suddenly what was ‘baked in’ is scattered all over the floor in a shower of broken crockery and trust.
We don’t know if the Number 10 Christmas party/parties will be the straw that breaks the public’s backs when it comes to Johnson. But there are reasons to believe that it might.
First, the worst crimes are those that fit a pattern and a preconception. These shindigs, on their own, may not be the end of the world. But mounted on top of Barnard Castle, Matt Hancock’s snogging, the Prime Minister’s refusal to wear a mask on a hospital ward, etc etc… The line that it is ‘one rule for them’ rings true. It feels like that’s what they think and how they act. Particularly given the footage of the PM’s spokeswoman joking about it with fellow aides in a dress rehearsal for the live briefings that never came to pass.
That will matter. Those Brexit voters who lent Boris Johnson their votes are pretty clear – in polls, in focus groups, in angry vox pops – that they despise the political class for humiliating them and for growing apart from them. This is another, visceral, example of just that. And there’s a lot of red wall Tory MPs who are fuming this morning.
Second, Boris Johnson owns all of this – personally. It was Boris Johnson who ruined our Christmases last year, who stood there in Downing Street shuffling about and insisting we be locked in our homes away from those we love. And it turns out that as he did so his own house was being used as a speakeasy by him, his family, and his aides. This can’t be blamed on a hapless Cabinet Minister or an unlucky aide. He is at the centre of it. Maybe he should have got Allegra Stratton to deliver the news last Christmas instead of doing it himself.
So, it is serious. And it may be that Johnson’s usual recipe – deny, joke, bat it away with a shrug and a smirk – simply doesn’t sate the public’s appetite for accountability this time.
Maybe that is unfair. Maybe it is entirely human and understandable that hardworking aides in the middle of a crisis would have a drink and a dance and exchange gifts to alleviate some of the stress and keep them going. Maybe the demands on those tasked with keeping this country going against the odds really should be different to those of the general public. But that hasn’t been the line they have taken, has it? And so it is not really a line available to them anymore. Because – yet again – in seeking to squash the story the Government has only caused it to rise and rise and rise. A sour dough, this.