The Royal Family is saving Boris Johnson’s political career (not that it wants to)

Happy Saturday and a happy Jubilee Week-eve to you. The next 10 or so days are going to see heavy royal coverage, both in the UK and around the world. The vast majority of it is going to be happy, fluffy, and uncontroversial. Yes, there will be stories about Meghan and Harry and the balcony and Thomas Markle; but most of the coverage we will get for the next while will be about the Queen’s devoted service to the UK and Commonwealth and the sturdy line of succession that is currently in place for when the inevitable time comes.

As you know, the land of pleasant and sanitized royal stories is not where I live. I’m glad that other people like to cover it, because I can’t get excited enough about Ed Sheeran or Diana Ross playing outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the reign of a woman who probably doesn’t know who Ed Sheeran even is and who would probably rather be asleep in bed (the woman is 96 years old, after all). So why am I writing about it? I’m writing about it because the happy, fluffy stories of the Jubilee are what are allowing Boris Johnson to remain UK Prime Minister.

This is where I need to give a brief refresher on #Partygate, aka Boris Johnson and His Government Broke Covid Lockdown Rules They Created While You Were At Home Obeying the Law.

In 2020 and 2021, the UK (and the rest of the world) was in the midst of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. In order to try to minimize sickness and deaths until vaccines could be created, tested and manufactured, and to prevent health care systems around the world from being overwhelmed, governments instituted various restrictions around how many people one could see and/or visit. These restrictions varied in different places and were modified to be stronger or looser depending on infection levels at the time. The government of the United Kingdom, which is led on a day to day basis by its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, instituted numerous restrictions and lockdowns. Some of these lockdowns were so strict that people were not allowed to visit their dying relatives or loved ones in hospital. There are devastating stories of people saying goodbye to their parent/grandparent/spouse via FaceTime or communication with a hospital worker over text message, because the lockdown level did not permit any visitors. However, people, for the most part, complied with these restrictions because 1) they did not want to break the law; and 2) they did not want to get anyone unnecessarily sick.

These restrictions were probably most widely recognized from the funeral for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The restrictions at the time of the Duke’s death in April 2021 were such that only 30 people could legally be invited to the funeral. However, the fact that even the Queen was playing by the rules of lockdown was somehow comforting. We were all in this fight against coronavirus together. The photo of the Queen sitting on her own in St. George’s Chapel may be one of the long-lasting images that demonstrate the grief, isolation, and determination to go on that resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cut to late 2021. Reports started circulating that said that 10 Downing Street, the UK Prime Minister’s office and private residence, had been ground zero for multiple social gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic. The politicians, advisors, and senior civil servants who imposed the lockdown rules on the United Kingdom had broken those same lockdown rules on multiple occasions. And these gatherings included Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This tweet really sums it up for me:

I’m a hardened political staffer and politics junkie, so I am VERY cynical when political reporters say that someone’s political demise is imminent. I’m of the opinion that if you can continue on like nothing has happened for long enough, the public anger on a certain issue will fade and you will likely be able to stay in office, pretty much regardless of what you have done or have been accused of doing. (I’m not saying that this is morally right or just – not at all – but it is what I have come to expect during political crises. I also want to point out that there are exceptions to every rule. But I have found this to be the rule). So when commentators from the BBC, the Times, the Guardian, etc. were all saying that Boris Johnson’s days as PM were numbered, I took that with a massive grain of salt. I find Johnson’s actions despicable, but, to quote Liz Lemon, “You can’t keep someone with no shame down.” In order for Johnson to leave 10 Downing, he would need to feel the shame and contrition that a normal human being would feel, and he simply doesn’t.

But then the story got bigger. More gatherings (I’m generously calling them gatherings, but we all know they were parties) came to light. Then came the birthday cake. Then came the garden parties. Then came the Christmas do. Then came the news that the Metropolitan Police was investigating the gatherings to see if fines should be issued. Then fines WERE issued, including to Johnson. Then came the announcement of an official government inquiry into “alleged gatherings on government premises” during Covid, to be led by senior civil servant Sue Gray. Then, and I think this was the turning point, came the story of a “gathering” at 10 Downing the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral. While the Queen was preparing to say goodbye to her husband of 73 years, unable to invite more than 29 loved ones to his funeral, Johnson and his staff partied at the office representing the highest branch of the UK government.

Sue Gray’s final report into the alleged gatherings by Johnson and his staff at 10 Downing was just released. Rather than exonerate Johnson, it lays bare that he and his staff felt fully exempt from the rules they had imposed on the rest of the country. It details low-paid cleaners having to clean wine stains and vomit from offices after raucous parties. It details Comms staff telling workers to make sure to leave via the back entrance so they wouldn’t be caught by the press. And it details a raging party at 10 Downing Street the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, a party that ended when the last invitee left the Prime Minister’s office/residence at 4:20am the morning of the funeral.

Royal protocol dictated that Johnson and his staff could control the narrative around this revelation. Johnson apologized to the people of the United Kingdom and let us know that he had apologized to the Queen for holding parties “at a time of national mourning.” Downing Street confirmed that “No. 10 has apologized to the palace for that.” Per the royal policy of “never complain, never explain”, Buckingham Palace refused to speak about the matter. For all we know, the Queen could have rejected such an apology (I mean, she wouldn’t have, but it’s interesting to think about given that we aren’t privy to those conversations). But, in Johnson’s mind, he has asked forgiveness, and has been shown to the British people as having asked forgiveness, so all’s well that ends well and there’s nothing else to discuss. The Queen’s duty to keep conversations with her PM private also prevents her from speaking on it. Essentially, the BRF is constrained in ways that the political side of the fence either isn’t constrained by, or rejects outright.

Sue Gray’s report, which was released this week, states that “At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time” and that “there were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.”

I’m going to continue being a cynical political junkie and say two things, neither of which I have seen written yet:

  1. Sue Gray was likely quietly asked by 10 Downing to issue her report to coincide with the beginning of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations; and
  2. Johnson and 10 Downing are absolutely using the Queen’s Jubilee to retain hold of power.

I’m not sure if Johnson is smart enough to think of this on his own, but someone on his team definitely did, and it’s brilliant. Releasing the Sue Gray report the week before the Platinum Jubilee minimizes political damage to a stunning degree. The news of parties at 10 Downing has been trickling in since November of last year. If everything had come out at once, Johnson would have been gone by now. But because it’s a trickle instead of a fire hose, the anger has been diluted. Different politicians/regular people have been angry about different aspects of this scandal. Because of that, even though resentment toward Johnson has been at a simmer for months, it hasn’t gotten to a full boil at any point. And because Sue Gray’s report, which is the last big info dump about this scandal has been released just as the weather is getting nice, and the week before a four-day national holiday weekend, I predict anger won’t get to a boil because of this either, even though the details of the report are damning. It will be the closest to a boil that it will get, but it won’t get there.

Finally, the smartest political move of releasing the report now is that it essentially guarantees that Johnson is safe from getting the boot as PM for the next 7-10 days. Why 7-10 days? Because that’s the amount of time between now and the end of happy, frothy Platinum Jubilee coverage. And there is no way on God’s green earth that Boris Johnson would resign during the Platinum Jubilee, because a Prime Minister’s resignation during a celebration of a reign of the longest ever serving British monarch would be a political catastrophe the likes of which can’t be overstated. Can you imagine being a senior advisor at Buckingham Palace, having to deal with interacting with Boris Johnson’s office on a regular basis, and then having him resign during the 70-year anniversary of the longest-reigning monarch’s ascension to the throne? To quote Arcade Fire, it would be the end of the empire. It would be a signal to the rest of the world that Britain is crumbling and that Queen Elizabeth is unable to hold a government together. It would look like fragility and weakness on a world stage, which is the one thing that the UK cannot afford right now given the situation in Ukraine.

So, as a senior BuckPal advisor, even if Johnson submitted his resignation during the next 10 days (which I don’t think he would do, because of his having no shame), it would be your job to advise Queen Elizabeth not to accept it. Can you imagine having to beg the monarch, whose PM partied the night before her beloved husband’s funeral, not to accept that PM’s resignation? It’s awful. It’s a stroke of political genius from Johnson’s camp. And it will keep him off the chopping block for the next 7-10 days, at which point the public will be less angry about the Sue Gray revelations and the critical mass to ensure Johnson gets outsted as PM will be insufficient. Again, it’s evil, but it’s brilliant. And the Queen is the person who gets the short end of the stick. She has to deal with a PM like Johnson, then she has to deal with him partying the night before her husband’s funeral, then she can’t say anything when he apologizes to her, then he uses her Platinum Jubilee to make himself politically bulletproof. It’s enough to make one ask for several gin and Dubonnets.

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