Last July, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made waves by announcing that the United Kingdom would lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions.
As Johnson’s announcement cited “personal responsibility” and emphasized the need to “live with” the virus, it struck a chord among his fellow Conservative Party members (colloquially called Tories). July 19, 2021 — dubbed “Freedom Day” by Johnson’s allies — was marked by the removal of mask mandates, capacity limitations and even vaccine passport requirements across the UK. This announcement was displayed on Johnson’s Twitter.
At the time, Johnson’s opponents charged that suspending restrictions near the peak of the delta variant was reckless. While the number of cases rose initially in late July, the surge soon faded and the number of new cases remained steady for the next four months. In trying to specifically avoid another delta surge during flu season, Johnson succeeded.
However, Johnson could not account for appearance of another contagious variant, or a media circus of apparent hypocrisy that would make Gavin Newsom blush. Both of these unfortunate, yet independent events threaten the lifespan of Johnson’s premiership today.
The “contagious variant” I’m referring to is of course Omicron, which needs no introduction. First detected in South Africa around Thanksgiving, omicron has wreaked havoc on a pandemic-fatigued world, breaking daily case records in multiple countries. This variant’s effect was no different in the UK, and it prompted Johnson’s government to impose “Plan B” COVID-19 restrictions in early December. After an autumn of absence, masks and capacity limits had returned to England.
A frustrated British public could only watch as cases skyrocketed over the holidays. While there was little Johnson could have done to prevent the outbreak, the return to lockdown led some Britons — including members of Parliament (MPs) — to question his fitness to lead. But, as usual, Johnson leaned on his familiar persona of buffoonery for political survival, and he nearly got away with it.
Then, on Jan. 10, Downing Street was rocked by an explosive report that Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary to Johnson, had invited members of the prime minister’s staff to a “bring your own booze” event on May 20, 2020. The catch? Well, the rest of England was then subjected to a Johnson-imposed COVID-19 lockdown.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the reports kept pouring in. In June and December of 2020, Johnson was linked to parties thrown for his birthday and Christmas, respectively. According to The Daily Telegraph, the Downing Street crew held another questionable event in April 2021, just days before the funeral of the late Prince Philip.
Public relations for Johnson has scrambled to control the damage, but they have only succeeded in fueling what the London press has dubbed “Partygate.” What was particularly bizarre was the explanation of Johnson’s June 2020 birthday party, as given by an anonymous Downing Street spokeswoman: “He was there for less than 10 minutes.”
Translation: We get it, Boris. You didn’t inhale.
Jokes aside, you don’t need to guess how the British public reacted. Chris Curtis, head of political polling at London-based Opinium Research, summed it up quite colorfully by claiming citizens’ attitudes toward Johnson have turned from skepticism to outright cynicism.
“It has always been true that the public would prefer to have a pint with Boris Johnson, but wouldn’t necessarily trust him to look after their kids,” Curtis told ABC. “Now people say they would be less keen to have a pint with him and… really wouldn’t trust him to look after their kids.”
Indeed, Conservative MPs seem less keen to cozy up to Johnson today than they did a month ago. Talks of a no-confidence vote — code red for any parliamentary executive — have filled the air in London. Several Tory leaders, including Douglas Ross of Scotland, have already submitted no-confidence letters. Under the current rules, 54 Conservatives must write similar letters to oust Johnson.
While there is certainly dissent within the Tory ranks, the impending ethics investigation by Sue Gray, the Second Permanent Secretary of the UK’s Cabinet Office, provides a much more straightforward path to Johnson’s potential removal from office. Though Gray lacks formal judicial power as a civil servant, her investigation could still spell trouble for Johnson.
As BBC reported on Jan. 13, the probe will be turned over to London’s Metropolitan Police if Gray discovers evidence of potential criminal behavior. If Johnson is found to have breached Parliament’s code of conduct, he could be further investigated by the institution’s standards advisor, Lord Christopher Geidt.
Gray’s report is expected to be released later this week or early next week. For now, the defiant Johnson has resisted calls to resign.
What is the lesson in all this? For one, the British government takes ethical complaints much more seriously than their American counterparts. Compare this to last summer’s resignation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who survived forcing COVID-19 positive seniors into nursing homes, and was only forced out after sexually harassing nearly a dozen women over the years.
But, perhaps more importantly, Partygate is a constant reminder that we must hold our elected officials to the very standard they impose upon their citizens. The last two years have brought highly specific, often unclear and ever-changing pandemic restrictions, thus making it easier to excuse bad behavior from our leaders.
The backlash Johnson has received from across his country’s political spectrum should serve as a welcome reminder of our own obligation to keep tabs on those with power. And, if Johnson is ousted, leaders around the world should receive the message loud and clear: The era of “do as I say, not as I do” is over.