NOTnaturally, you’ll adore the pictures of Boris Johnson raising a glass at a Downing Street party during lockdown. It’s like a Holbein or something, depicting a corpulent man surrounded by all the esoteric accoutrements of state power: the red box, the Barefoot pinot grigio. The Surz Apple. Just out of shot? Either an astrolabe, or the booze suitcase.
Furthermore, you have to respect how the Metropolitan police get to the bottom of nothing except the barrel. It’s truly inspirational to think their £460,000 “Partygate” performance piece has not yet reached its final form. That will come as early as today, when a number of the officers tasked with not spotting Boris Johnson in a series of piss-up photos get signed off with stress. Only when they’ve been on the sick for two years, then retired with a full pension but also returned to a high-paying station desk job, will Partygate have attained the British establishment gold standard.
Last night, I saw a Tory MP demand to know: “Was the Met weak, gullible, incompetent or stupid?” sir, I simply CANNOT play favorites with those words. Just tick all of them, and wonder how we ever imagined it would be anything different. When you think of the people who’ve died in police custody with no officer seeing anything, it suddenly seems blindingly obvious that the cops would fail to discern the prime minister in a picture of a party that they have already ruled criminal, and have consequently issued other fines for. Johnson could have been kicking himself to death while holding aloft a glass of lady petrol, and any number of specialist officers would have found a way of not noticing it. It’s usually something to do with the sightlines, I believe.
Anyway: the leaked set of photos. Or rather: the first leaked set of photos. It’s possible they prove that most ancient of political adages: it’s not the crime, it’s the vanity photographer you hired to take photos of the crime. Did the PM’s personal photographer, Andrew Parsons (taxpayer-funded salary: the equivalent of £100,000 a year), take this unfortunate series of snaps featuring Johnson at a leaving party? We don’t know at this stage, though I must say I felt I recognized Andrew’s style: a shot framed like Brooklyn Beckham did it, with some giant blur in the foreground. Privacy pixellation, or just a bit of curry on the lens? Henri Cartier-Bresson called photography “the decisive moment”. Having studied his oeuvre, I would say Andrew tends to make a terrible decision way too late. I can’t imagine what drew Boris Johnson to him.
So did the PM mislead parliament? There are so many ways to answer that question, but I think the most dignified to join it warrants is probably: ya think?! Last December, Labour’s Catherine West asked Johnson in the Commons if he could tell her “whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November ”. Johnson’s reply: “No. But I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.” This has led some to speculate that Johnson could attempt to escape censorship for lying to the house on a kind of technicality: that the “no” referred to whether or not he could tell West the answer, as opposed to whether or not there was a party. So we’ve now seen the equivalent of a live two-hour freeway chase (Johnson in the Ford Bronco), and any amount of bloody footprints at the scene. But we definitely shouldn’t rule out the PM’s official spokesperson addressing the Commons privileges committee with the words: “If the ‘no’ doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Either way, on it all goes. Waiting for Johnson or his backbenchers to do the right thing over the parties scandal feels like waiting not just for Godot, but for some Godot/Rapture/Avatar III crossover. Let’s just frame the most historic story of the day in terms of the relevant drinks photos we haven’t clapped eyes on. We have yet to see a picture of the then-foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, drinking from a ceramic coconut on a paddleboard in Crete, while refusing to come home and sort out the Afghanistan evacuation last August. See also Foreign Office permanent secretary Philip Barton, who failed to return from holiday to deal with his department’s chaotic handling of this life-or-death situation.
What we have now seen, as of today, is the foreign affairs committee’s hugely damning report into the Foreign Office’s handling of the situation. That alone has proved hard to get to the bottom of, with the department branded “intentionally evasive and often deliberately misleading”, and Barton himself accused of a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts”. As Kabul fell, countless Afghans who had assisted the British were left behind and subsequently tortured or murdered by the Taliban, while animal twazzock Pen Farthing was the sole passenger on the last civilian plane out, having presumably convinced someone extremely high up in government that his pets were high-value Taliban targets. As the report has it: “Multiple senior officials believed that the prime minister played a role in this decision. We have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation for how it came about.”
Unfortunately, we don’t really live in a time of plausible explanations. The foreign affairs committee report identified a “fundamental lack of seriousness” in government, which feels entirely right. The key thing to realize is that it’s all connected. Partygate and the Afghan chaos are on a continuum. Conservative MPs should think of it as a vast carelessness, and realize that the sooner they demand what we might call a broken windows theory of government, the fewer real lives will be sacrificed to it.