In what might be the understatement of the century, Rachel Johnson, sister of the prime minister, admits that “it has not been the quietest, calmest of weeks in the Johnson family”. I can well believe it – though for the “Big Dog” himself, a week without a No 10 party must have been, if not quiet, at least novel.
The “Partygate” story has ballooned into a full-blown crisis for the Tories. It will either bring the prime minister down or, if reports in the Sunday newspapers are to be believed, pretty much his entire team instead. Something has to give. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ve got this all wrong and it’s nothing more than a storm in a pint glass. That, at least, seems to be the opinion of Rachel Johnson – who, I feel obliged to remind you once again, is the sister of the prime minister. Please don’t forget that as you read on.
On her LBC radio show yesterday, Rachel attempted to set the record straight. “I didn’t see much of the prime minister and his family during lockdown,” she said. “But the times I did see him, he was completely compliant [...] If it was ‘rule of six’, there were six. What I didn’t see is all the things you’ve been reading about.”
We’ll get onto the best bit of Rachel’s monologue in just a second, but it is worth briefly unpicking this. It should hardly need pointing out that, as a defence, it is quite weak to suggest that the prime minister probably didn’t break Covid rules on the basis that you didn’t witness this sort of behaviour yourself, despite admitting, in the previous sentence, that you rarely saw the prime minister during the time the rule-breaking was allegedly taking place. So when Rachel says she “didn’t see all the things you’ve been reading about”, I’m inclined to be unsurprised because, well, she wasn’t there.
But on we go. Rachel then insists that in all the years she has known Boris, not once has he ever “turned to me or any member of my family and said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s have an office party.’” The reasons for this seem clear enough, for who would throw an office party for their family? I mean, nepotism is a problem in politics, but seriously? It can’t be that bad. Besides, Rachel insists, Boris would rather recite poetry or have a “reading” party.
That last part may indeed be true, but misses the point by an impressive margin. For no one is suggesting that the prime minister hurried down to Co-op with a suitcase to get the beers in or that he himself broke poor Wilf’s swing. The point, for those at the back, is that he was the prime minister when all of this was going on in his actual house. He presided over this culture and, whether or not he was involved, turned a blind eye to it.
Or to put it another way, if you’re the landlord of a pub that is so out of hand the neighbours complain, it won’t be much use telling the police that you don’t drink and were reciting poetry as the windows smashed and the walls caved in.
Rachel Johnson is of course entitled to defend her brother, but to me her suggestion that the prime minister would have gone out into the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 believing that it was “work” manages to insult the intelligence of both us and Boris Johnson.
“He may have had a drink, I don’t know. Is that one of the key questions?” she asks. Yes, I’m afraid that is one of the key questions, Rachel. I can’t speak for the rest of you but I have never had a drink in a garden, surrounded by lots of other people having drinks, and thought, “I need to stop this, I’m working too hard.”
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The timing of Rachel’s comments on LBC are especially unfortunate, coming as they do at a moment when the Tories are ramping up their war on the BBC. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has vowed to scrap the licence fee, stating that this year’s funding announcement “will be the last”. She is expected to freeze the annual cost of a television licence at £159 for the next two years, a move which will cost the BBC about £2bn.
But it is, as ever, Andrew Bridgen who sees stupidity and then offers to double it. Commenting on the BBC’s coverage of “Partygate”, the Tory MP said: “The BBC’s ingrained anti-Conservative bias is clear for all to see. This is a matter for the Conservative Party to deal with internally [...] It’s clear that the BBC is riding its hobby horse.”
You read that, then listen to Rachel Johnson’s comments on LBC and just think: are we really sure we want to lose the BBC? Doesn’t this just show exactly why we need it? Besides, if it’s impartiality that Andrew Bridgen is worried about, you dread to think what he makes of the prime minister’s actual sister speaking out on his behalf. But then again, maybe impartiality isn’t really the problem at all, eh Andrew?