On Tuesday morning, a tide of grief and anger – raw and painful to watch – swept across Britain as thousands of people were catapulted back to some of the darkest days of their lives. And all because Boris Johnson and his staff wanted to make the most of the lovely weather in May 2020.
There is something tragically fitting about the fact that this prime minister – a man whose rise to the top was fuelled almost entirely by the hot air of empty boosterism and cheapjack charisma – has been caught up in a high-speed collision between the farce of his administration and the tragedy of a pandemic too real to be joked or blustered away.
On Monday, ITV published an email invitation sent out by Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, inviting up to 100 staffers to “socially distanced” drinks in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020 “to make the most of this lovely weather”. Witnesses have told the BBC that Johnson and his wife, Carrie, were among 30 people who attended.
Barely an hour before the party started, Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden had held a press conference reminding people that they were only allowed to meet one person outside.
The phrase “one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us” has been resonating for months now, so much so that it’s almost lost its power to shock but on Tuesday Hannah Brady, a member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, spelt it out in grim and dreadful detail.
“I think this pandemic for me is the story of two men. One is my 55-year-old dad who is dead, having spent 42 nights on a ventilator fighting Covid and no other illnesses. The other is a man who was 55 at the time of this party; Boris Johnson, having survived Covid himself, thought it was appropriate to host a party where you could bring your own booze in the garden in Downing Street where Boris met me and four other bereaved families and told us to our faces, after listening to my Dad’s story, ‘I did everything I could to save him’.”
Brady’s father died just four days before the BYOB email was sent out. His death certificate was signed on May 20.
Once again, with tedious inevitability, the prime minister has declined to say if he was at the party and No 10 has refused to comment, beyond saying that the gathering, and others, are subject to an independent probe by top civil servant Sue Gray.
But the British public don’t seem inclined to wait for the official report.
“It is truly beyond belief that while the rest of the country was in lockdown, Johnson and his staff felt it was acceptable to have a party. It makes me rather sick, it’s like opening the wounds again and again and again, every revelation is just soul-destroying,” Rivka Gottlieb, whose father died from Covid, told Sky News.
Author and poet Michael Rosen tweeted: “May 20 2020 Number 10 party. Damn, I missed it. I was in a coma. Just my luck.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald spoke in The Great Gatsby of “careless people” who smashed things up and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness. The Downing Street garden may not be West Egg, where Gatsby threw his parties, but there is something of that “careless” decadence evident in the photos that have emerged of lockdown gatherings.
But perhaps we need to look further back for an explanation of Johnson’s exceptionalism, back to his beloved Greek classics. Describing hubris in Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote:
“Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim…simply for the pleasure of it … Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.”
Even as the bereaved told their stories again on Tuesday, the UK’s main statistical body reported more than 175,000 deaths involving Covid since the start of the pandemic. The government’s official count passed 150,000 over the weekend, making the UK the seventh country to pass that grim milestone, after the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.
On Saturday, Johnson said every death “is a profound loss to the friends and communities affected and my thoughts and condolences are with them”. But Professor Andrew Hayward, of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said Britain could have done better, telling Radio 4’s PM programme: “I think some of the deaths are even more tragic for the fact that many of them were avoidable if we had acted earlier in the first and second wave.”
It may be farce grabbing the headlines but behind them lies a real and raw national tragedy.
Johnson’s situation would put one in the mind of Al Capone, the mob boss eventually done for tax evasion. After all, breaking the rules at a garden party is perhaps not even the worst of Johnson’s transgressions – there is still Wallpapergate, the damage done to Britain’s international standing because of Brexit, the effect that is having and will have on the economy and the seemingly never-ending allegations of corrupt practices, even and especially during the pandemic.
As Labour’s Ed Milliband said: “I’m afraid it speaks to a rotten culture at the heart of this government and the rotten culture begins with the person in charge.”
Perhaps the music really is about to stop.