One of the strangest aspects of the ‘Partygate’ speech has been the loyalty shown by some conservative opponents of the COVID-19 lockdowns to Boris Johnson’s cause. Prominent media figures Right-wing groups have jumped to Johnson’s defense over allegations that he violated lockdown rules, with arguments that tend to focus on talking points like “this is all a waste of time,” “they’re out for revenge on Boris” and “it was just cake’.
They are right, of course: the Prime Minister who gets a little fussy about his staff should be complete nonsense, and would be, except for the fact that this Prime Minister, along with his staff, civil servants, and Parliament, were responsible for criminalizing such normal activities for all of us.
We can all accept that the lockdown rules were draconian and inhumane, whether you believe they were worth it or, as a recent book published by the Institute for Economic Affairs suggests, that they failed to justify the immense costs. By locking down the country, the government forcibly prevented us from the most basic human contact and deprived us of our most fundamental individual liberties. Seeing friends required a mental checklist of justifications, numbers, places, and social distance; it was forbidden to hug our older relatives unless we lived with them; even the act of saying goodbye to a dying loved one was often reduced to a phone call.
To even begin to account for this and all the significant economic costs, the restrictions would have to have been extremely effective and strictly observed by those who insisted they were necessary to prevent a public health catastrophe. Confidence in the rule of law, applied equally to the powerful and the powerless, is, in large part, what separates free and prosperous societies from the banana republics and autocracies that permeate much of the world. Boris Johnson and all the people caught violating those rules betrayed that fragile trust.
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That brings me back to my focus on these conservative lockdown skeptics. They are well aware of all the tremendous costs of the lockdown, most spoke out against it at the time, and continue to do so courageously in an effort to prevent us from considering the policy ever again. And yet many of them continue to speak out for Boris Johnson, the man who first placed those restrictions on us and then had the temerity to break those very rules.
Yes, there is an argument that the Committee on Privileges’ ultimately moot recommendation that Johnson be suspended from the House of Commons for 90 days was too harsh and that other politicians would have been treated differently for similar and worse conduct. But even if anti-Brexit elites were eager to persecute Johnson, that doesn’t justify his hypocrisy, lies and rule-breaking. To argue otherwise is to force him to a lower standard of conduct “just because he is Boris.” Giving him that privilege would be the ultimate elite trick. So would letting him go free for violating his own laws.
But all of that is secondary to the pernicious oddity of Johnson’s lockdown parties. He made the call to lock us up and deprive us of our most basic rights. He consciously relegated the tremendous economic costs of the closures to a secondary consideration. He delegated broad political authority to the scientific minds behind the lockdown consensus. Those acts alone are condemnable, but simply ignoring the rules he imposed on us from the safety of his taxpayer-funded headquarters is almost unforgivable.
Politicians are, like the rest of us, human. They make mistakes, they break the rules and in general we should be more accepting of it. But make no mistake, the laws and policies enacted by the Boris Johnson government did not grant us the same grace: we were threatened with fines, arrest and even imprisonment for violating them.
One can admire Boris Johnson’s qualities and achievements without applying double standards. All of us, especially those who fought against the lockdowns, should not sacrifice our principles and integrity by doing just that. It was, after all, much more than ‘just cake’.
Harrison Griffiths is a communications officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.