The impact of the Downing Street parties scandal on public opinion seems profound after a historic defeat for the Tories in the recent North Shropshire by-election. rs21’s Graham Checkley argues that now it’s time to turn up the pressure outside parliamentary politics. 

‘Working in government is an immense privilege. I tried to do right by you all, to behave with civility and decency and act to the high standards you rightly expect of Number 10.’ – Allegra Stratton resignation speech, December 2021.

Perhaps the high standards referred to the quality of the wine and cheese?

At the time of writing, we know about three Downing Street parties that are under investigation, and it is worth checking the dates against the pandemic regulations in place at the time: 27 November 2020 – no indoor gatherings; 5 December – you must not socialise with anyone you do not live with; 18 December – you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party.

The police were quite clear about this. Between March 2020 and January 2021, 2,982 fines were issued in England for participating in a gathering inside a house or any indoor space in a Tier 3 area, 250 fines for holding a gathering of more than 30 people, and fines of up to £10,000 when large parties were shut down by the police.

But the Metropolitan police say they won’t investigate the Downing Street parties, due to a ‘lack of evidence’. Presumably the logs they keep of everyone entering and leaving Downing Street aren’t good enough…

They showed much more rigour in application of the same law at the Clapham Common vigil that followed the murder of Sarah Everard, handcuffing and pinning down a woman to enforce the pandemic regulations.

Also, as it only took the Inspectorate seventeen days to conclude that ‘The Metropolitan Police was justified in adopting the view that the risks of transmitting COVID-19 at the (Clapham Common) vigil were too great to ignore when planning for and policing the event.’, we can see that pandemic justice can move swiftly at need.

But there will be an investigation of the Downing Street parties, we were told, and it would be led by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.  Perhaps we should have expected an equally swift response?  No, the best promise from Boris Johnson was ‘as soon as we reasonably can’, and this was subsequently derailed by Mr Case stepping down, when it was revealed that he, too, was under investigation for holding a party during lockdown.

So, quality rather than speed because, as Allegra Stratton pointed out, ‘high standards’ are expected of Number 10.  But we can only hope that the report by whoever they can find who didn’t break the regulations meets a happier fate than previous investigations into conduct, such as the ministerial conduct of Priti Patel and the Barnard Castle trip by Dominic Cummings.

Boris Johnson is the sole arbiter of the conduct rules, and this leads us into dangerous waters.  As Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government put it: ‘Boris Johnson has, as we have been told repeatedly over the many months of this investigation, decided to stick with Priti Patel. Just as with Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle visit, Johnson has decided that short-term political fallout is outweighed by the benefits of keeping an ally in post.’

The final fate of the report into what happened at Downing Street will probably reflect these previous decisions, but few people will be surprised or perhaps even notice, because with COVID-19 there are plenty of days to bury bad news.

So, if it is a case of no rules for them, new rules for us, how will this affect the management of the pandemic?  As The Lancet pointed out, documenting ‘The Cummings Effect’, Public trust in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic is crucial as this trust underpins public attitudes and behaviours at a precarious time for public health…trust is related to people’s willingness to follow rules and guidelines.’

The behavioural results are complex, but it might surprise Boris Johnson to hear that many people will continue to do the right things – vaccination, masks, social distancing – even though the government itself breaks the rules.

Meanwhile, the political fall-out from last year’s party season continues.

Shaun Bailey, previously the Tory candidate for London mayor, has had to resign as chair of a London Assembly committee, after it was revealed that he had been at a Christmas party at Tory HQ during December 2020, when London was under a tier 2 lockdown. Interestingly, Bailey has been commended for his resignation by another Tory committee member, although it could be argued that he should have stood down the day after the Christmas party, admitting to a grave breach of trust.

But to date the strongest verdict on Tory behaviour has come from traditional Tory voters themselves.  At the North Shropshire byelection, held following the resignation of Owen Paterson, the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn a Tory majority of almost 23,000, held following the resignation of Owen Paterson. Paterson was forced to resign after being found to have broken paid advocacy rules by the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards, although Boris Johnson tried – and failed – to get Parliament to re-write the rules to defend him.

Unfortunately, one outcome of the Downing Street parties is that they provide the anti-vaxxers yet another excuse for what they do, and there is also the potential for other far-right activism building on this work.

We need to counter this by going on the offensive.  While corruption and confusion in the Tory house is no bad news, the Tories remain united around monstrous legislation on the health service, immigration, policing and voter registration.  A few are also putting out tentative feelers to the anti-vaccination brigade, as they themselves are committed against COVID-19 controls and are perhaps tasting the idea of an even more populist approach to politics.

The North Shropshire result reflects a mood that is rejecting corruption, double standards, and incompetence, but it is not a seismic shift to the left.

However, it is a mood that provides potential for the left, and our job as socialists is to look for ways of generalising from it, not in Parliament but in struggles outside of it.  That way we can turn the Tory confusion to the advantage of our class and not theirs.

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