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The most damaging perception of the government throughout the pandemic is that it passed laws that it didn’t abide by itself. That was why the flight of Dominic Cummings to Durham during the first lockdown last year convulsed the nation, a nation making great sacrifices for the sake of each other.
That is why Matt Hancock, the health secretary, had to go in June this year when it was revealed that he wasn’t observing the rules on social distancing that he himself had laid down.
And that is why the story of parties in Downing Street last Christmas have had such a dramatic effect on public opinion this month, despite the events taking place a year ago.
The leaked video of Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s former spokesperson, seeming to admit that there had been a party – and seeming to make light of the rules banning it at the time – has had an unusual effect on the opinion polls, pushing Labour into a significant lead.
Now The Independent is reporting another party in Downing Street, in May 2020, just as the first lockdown was being tentatively eased. Hancock had just announced at a news conference in No 10 that households would be allowed to mix outdoors, but only two people at a time, one from each household, and that any gathering of people from different households indoors would remain banned.
The Independent has been told that Downing Street officials had a party in the Downing Street garden, and indoors, to celebrate the relaxation, and that Boris Johnson – who was there for about 15 minutes – told someone they deserved their drink for their part in “beating back” the virus.
This is bound to add to the view that the government thought the rules applied to the little people, but not to the important ones actually running the country. Keir Starmer says of the prime minister in an interview today: “Throughout the pandemic, he’s had the benefit of the doubt.” But “because of what’s happened, particularly the partygate stuff”, the Labour leader feels that Johnson is no longer being given that benefit.
“We all remember what we were doing last Christmas, many people were genuinely making really big sacrifices, not seeing their loved ones – some of them not seeing them ever again,” Starmer says. “A sense that, whilst he instructed the country to behave in that way, he was partying, cuts very, very deep.”
It doesn’t matter if people didn’t agree with the rules. There were many people who thought, during the first lockdown, that the restrictions on meeting outdoors went too far, as there was little evidence that the virus could spread in the open air.
And no doubt people in Downing Street would have thought that it didn’t make sense to be allowed to share an office with someone while working, but not while drinking, eating and talking – but those were the rules at the time, and many other people made sacrifices to stick to them.
This was always the political danger in using the law as a way of protecting public health. I shall never forget Johnson’s incredulity at an early news conference when Larisa Brown of the Daily Mail asked if the police would be enforcing the guidance he had just given people. “The police?” he said, surprised, as if it had genuinely not occurred to him.
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Yet within days, he and Hancock were passing legislation, often coming into effect before it had even been looked at by parliament, to require people to obey coronavirus restrictions. And the police were indeed moving on people sunbathing in parks.
Once the government decides to make public health rules a matter of the criminal law, it had better ensure that everyone in government obeys those rules to the letter.
It is becoming harder and harder for Johnson to claim that he had no idea what was going on in the building where he works and lives.
Starmer is right. The prime minister has had the benefit of the doubt, but it is now being withdrawn.