The brilliant but troubled footballer Mario Balotelli once scored a goal in a Manchester derby match and then lifted up his jersey to reveal a t-shirt with the slogan: ‘Why always me?’ Those who had followed his chaotic career closely could have told him that being the sort of bloke who allows fireworks to be let off in his own bathroom — as he had done the night before, starting a fire that caused £400,000 worth of damage to his house — probably had something to do with it.
Today Boris Johnson would seem to have pulled off a similar feat, as he faces the increasingly likely prospect of police questioning after details emerged of yet another lockdown-flouting gathering at Downing Street. This particular party — reportedly attended by up to 40 staff and probably by the PM himself — took place during the first, harshest lockdown. It was arranged by a senior No. 10 official, even as the government was warning people they were only allowed to meet one person outside of their own household in an outdoor public space.
I have already predicted that the PM’s habit of bending of the rules in his own favour would not bring him down but I also included two caveats. The first was ‘unless an especially egregious example is uncovered’ that mocked the efforts of voters in their own lives. The second was ‘unless he is actually convicted of a crime’.
This newly uncovered gathering of 20 May 2020 would certainly seem to amount to an egregious example mocking the efforts of voters. An inspector may also call on the PM in due course, with the Metropolitan Police already confirming that it is ‘in touch with the Cabinet Office’ about what took place.
As far as the prospect of criminal prosecution goes, it certainly helps the PM that the event took place in his own back garden rather than a public space and that the official who organised it — his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds — was the ‘gatekeeper’ responsible for ensuring Downing Street’s compliance with Covid rules. The cynical old joke about deputy heads needing to roll may soon come into play.
So it would seem odds against Johnson himself actually being charged with a crime, let alone convicted — which would be a scenario from which not even the man referred to by David Cameron as ‘the greased piglet’ could wriggle free.
But the political damage caused by yet another example of Johnson exempting himself from rules that he expected the rest of us to follow is likely to be considerable. At the very least, the prospect of a recovery in the PM’s standing is now postponed.
Until the leaking of this latest story, the political weather forecast surrounding Johnson was approximately neutral: the likely imminent success on Covid probably balanced out by a nasty living standards crunch. Now we are back into a stormy outlook.
Some voters, especially those who were forced to postpone key family events or were unable to visit dying relatives in spring 2020, will no doubt find ice entering their hearts in regard to this PM. A bigger group, for whom these regrettable episodes are already factored into their view of him, will have it reinforced in their minds that this is a leader with considerable flaws. There may be a third, more libertarian-minded group that likes being reminded that this PM was a most reluctant lockdowner by temperament and was as ready to ignore the rules as they were. But equally, even they may simply damn him as a hypocrite.
Can Boris Johnson be saved again by his Tory machine via its tried-and-tested methods of distancing the boss from the consequences of his own erratic nature? Yes, he probably can be and probably will be. The Francis Urquhart playbook will see to it — a resigning official here, a generalised slap on the wrist from an entirely independent civil service investigator there and somehow the caravan will be moved on.
But a more unsettling question for Johnson is for how much longer will the Conservative machine decide that the price is worth paying?
In the end, for all his moments of brilliance, Balotelli just wasn’t worth the aggro and the men in grey suits at Manchester City got rid of him. It helped that, in Sergio Aguero, they had another striker just as talented but far more focused available to be the main goalscorer. Unless his latest marriage and exposure to fatherhood turns out to have settled him down, so it will be, some day, with Johnson. Not brought down directly by the voters or by the police, but by an overwhelming sense of weariness among the collective and the emergence of a better bet.
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