The prime minister had previously enjoyed a spell of positive publicity, thanks to his trip to Ukraine and the glowing endorsements he received from President Zelensky.
There were two common reactions to the latest development in the ‘partygate’ story.
Some people followed the lead of Boris’s most vociferous critics, who already hated him. They demanded again that he step down, pointing out that he’d broken the very rules that his own government had imposed, but they didn’t leave it there. Instead, they claimed that his actions were abhorrent and implied that, while the rest of the country suffered through the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson and his cronies were partying hard and scoffing endless birthday cakes.
On the other hand, there were his keenest defenders, made up mainly of the prime minister’s long-term fans.
They argued that Johnson couldn’t possibly resign, because of the situation in Ukraine. He was guilty of a minor indiscretion, but now provided the leadership that Britain needs while war rages in Europe.
Both positions contained elements of truth, but they are also overstated.
The prime minister and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, certainly broke rules that had been devised by their own government.
That was a scandal. But only because the law was so confusing, arbitrary and authoritarian in the first place. The actions of these two men, as reported in the media, were not in themselves outrageous.
A small group of people, who were compelled to work together in close proximity anyway, met for a short-time in the middle of a busy afternoon to sing ‘happy birthday’ and share a cake.
The problem is that we were all subjected to the same bad legislation and had to obey it. And they were the ones telling us that this was necessary.
The laws were rushed through parliament without proper scrutiny and imposed upon the population with hardly any public debate.
Indeed, those who raised concerns were often depicted as dangerous conspiracy theorists, or accused of being cavalier about people’s lives.
In Northern Ireland, extraordinarily, our Stormont assembly on several occasions voted on regulations that had been in place for weeks, or, in some cases had already been replaced by a new wave of restrictions.
It is no wonder that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak fell foul of this regime. Their misdemeanours were relatively minor, in comparison to the flagrant breaches of Covid restrictions that we saw here, when Sinn Fein ministers joined thousands of mourners at a terrorist’s funeral.
At the same time, Johnson and Sunak absolutely must take responsibility, because they were part of a government that turned vast numbers of ordinary people into offenders for doing perfectly reasonable things that posed little risk to anybody else.
Remember the police forces in England who hounded walkers who were holding coffee cups, or harassed people for sunbathing in parks?
For their part, the prime minister’s defenders are obviously right to claim that the war in Ukraine is far more important than historic offences against Covid regulations.
It is ridiculous to argue, though, that Boris Johnson is the only person qualified to lead the UK while this conflict is taking place.
Russia’s campaign in Ukraine is a critical geopolitical challenge for every country in Europe, but Britain is not taking part in the war directly.
Johnson has been praised for this outspoken condemnation of Vladimir Putin and his willingness to provide military aid to Zelensky’s administration, but that does not make him immune from criticism of other aspects for government.
The scandal about Covid regulations is not over. The Met Police is expected to issue more fines, which could include further sanctions for the prime minister and other senior members of the government. And Sue Gray’s report into illegal gatherings at Downing Street could be published as early as this week. A ‘source’ told the Daily Telegraph, “The details ... will make very uncomfortable reading for Boris Johnson and a number of other figures at Whitehall.”
The ‘ministerial code’, which is supposed to govern how ministers behave, requires them “to give honest and truthful information to parliament” and to correct “any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”. So far, many Conservative MPs seem to accept the argument that Johnson and Sunak misled the House of Commons unintentionally, when they claimed that they did not attend illicit events.
If there are further revelations, that mood may change, depending upon how the public reacts. Already, a few Tories have called for the PM to resign.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have found Johnson slippery and unreliable, particularly in relation to the protocol. They may wish to see the back of him, but, as I’ve argued before in this column, there are no guarantees that he will be replaced by somebody who is more sympathetic to their cause.
Other letters and opinion pieces:
• Ben Lowry main column: There should be room for firm unionists who are also liberal
• Ben Lowry: Boris Johnson is under-estimated by his enemies