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Voices: Downing Street party photo is Boris Johnson’s two fingers to the electorate

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If you wanted an image that screamed privileged, self-entitled, lotus-eating indulgence, you couldn’t commission something much better than the photograph leaked over the weekend of gentle post-work drinks on a pleasant summer’s evening in Downing Street.

Here we glimpse our governing Brexit elite at play. It was forwarded to the media, according to the deputy prime minister (not pictured/invited) Dominic Raab, “with animus”. That seems undeniable – you can’t imagine the leaker was trying to be helpful. Fair enough, but it was composed (not necessarily by the leaker) with some thought and care. Taken from above, probably the first floor balcony of No 11, according to the forensic speculation by Ed Balls, it offers us a fine portrait of the ruling class at leisure in an international crisis, like something out of the lazy Edwardian summer of 1914.

No boaters and blazers in 2020, but it’s the same vibe. It’s mostly lucky young people languishing in the sunshine, little groups together, casually attired, making the most of the government hospitality service, relaxing after another long hard day making up onerous rules immiserating the lives of other people.

Elsewhere on plague island, families were making do with Zoom funerals and peering through windows at confused loved ones in care homes, all under the regulations promulgated by the very jolly rule makers clumped around the terrace and the lawn in the image. As with so many great works of art, the context adds a sardonic edge. If Hogarth had had a smartphone he might have given us this. Our contemporary equivalent, Cold War Steve, has already had his fun with it.

At the back there’s a group gathered in what looks to be the early formation of a typical Johnson administration circular firing squad, or for a game of croquet. There are early-middle-aged men prematurely balding, and lots of young women in summer dresses. It doesn’t necessarily all suggest complacency, but not urgency or suffering either.

Then, in the foreground, we spot the familiar figure of the prime minister listening rather intently to his wife, Carrie, who is holding their infant Wilf like Chicago gangsters used to point their Tommy guns at those they wished to extort. Perhaps she is berating him about the climate crisis, or a “damaging” story in The Times about Dilyn the terrier (not present). Also visible is the domed head of Dominic Cummings, ignoring the man that he later came to label “The Trolley”. To the prime minister’s right is his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, arms lifted towards the heavens, adopting the kind of pose seen in the religious allegories of the Renaissance. Perhaps he is asking his Lord and God for forgiveness, though that’s unlikely. Perhaps he’s spotted some chum from the Foreign Office he was at college with, and is signalling to them to join the gathering, or gesturing “so what?” to some admonitory look. Will we ever know?

Fortunately, yes, we will. For Reynolds is one of the team tasked with investigating allegations of unlawful gatherings in Downing Street, so he’ll no doubt be in a position to explain everything away. Maybe, Prince Andrew-style, he’ll argue that that’s not him in the chair, and he has no recollection of ever being on that garden terrace, and anyway he can’t sweat. If they knew who owned the image they could attack them, but they don’t, because you can’t know its history. Again, like other such works, it’s all a question of provenance, you see. This one might even become an NFT.

On any reasonable reading of the very strict rules in place at the time – concocted by the very jeunesse doree in the picture – this gathering broke the rules. For the record, the rules were: “To make sure people are staying at home and apart from each other, the government has prohibited by law all public gatherings of more than two people, except for very limited purposes: where the gathering is of a group of people who live together in the same household – this means that a parent can, for example, take their children to the shops if there is no option to leave them at home – [or] where the gathering is essential for work purposes – but workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace.”

Now this, it is said by Dominic Raab, is supposed to be a sort of extension of a work meeting. In Raab’s bleating words: “It’s a place of work. They’re all in suits, predominantly in formal attire ... They might have a drink after the formal business has ended.”

Maybe, and all very human, but it’s still against the the rules, and denied to everyone else. Where is the Powerpoint presentation? Where are the laptops? Where is the cabinet secretary making careful notes? Where is Jonathan Van-Tam using the fortunes of Boston Football Club to craft a powerful analogy about teamwork and collective failure? All we see is chilled Burgundy, glasses of full-bodied rioja, cheese platters on highly polished glass tables, and tasteful wicker garden furniture, very possibly from John Lewis and no doubt due for expensive replacement. Because, you see, they thought they deserved it. Nurses on Covid wards did too, though, surely?

Apparently, also, as an alternate alibi, Boris and Carrie were using their private garden for entertaining, which means that it wasn’t a work gathering after all, but was against the rules anyhow, just as Allegra Stratton despairingly pointed out in that famous mock press conference.

Even if it were an “extension” of a work gathering – the fight against Covid by other, boozier, means – we all know how such events rapidly degenerate from serious talk about serious topics into gossip about who’s shagging who (a rich seam of material in that workplace) and bitching about bosses (ditto). This is a political group, after all, and an unusually dysfunctional one. Somehow you doubt that R-numbers were the focus of much of the conversation.

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The other “defence” you sometimes see is that this gathering, like every other such party or quasi-party, was covered by some unnoticed clause in the Public Health Act 1984 that exempts “crown property” from all the rules. In which case they could all have legally adjourned to the Downing Street ballroom and organised a Roman orgy, spads swinging from the chandeliers, counsellors of the British state copulating in corners, Boris with his trousers round his ankles, all as a just reward for their strenuous efforts on levelling up.

If the charge is that it is one rule for us and another rule for them, it seems odd to plead that it’s all actually OK because there is a law that allows that. This ultimate get-out clause was certainly never mentioned in the briefing a grim-faced Matt Hancock was previously giving a few yards away. You do have to wonder whether Johnson’s constant blanket assertions that he was assured “all rules were followed” is in fact his last legalistic line of defence, the supposed “crown property” exemption, to be magicked up when he’s left in the bunker with Carrie, Nadine and Dilyn.

The last time Johnson addressed this issue he shifted his line from “no rules were broken” to “I was not involved”, so the hunt was on for evidence that he was. The still from the Zoom quiz also suggested a lack of social distancing and that he could see for himself others gathered close together round monitors. This latest image is a much more definitive and personal “two fingers” to the country’s regulations. He’s bang to rights, and the public and his party (in the other sense) have a right to be angry. It’s no joke.

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