To the left, Jeremy Corbyn breaching the “Rule of Six” at a dinner of nine. To the right, Stanley Johnson in a shop without a face mask. Pictures of both were duly splashed all over the papers and the internet.
Johnson’s excuse strained credibility in a very Johnsonian way. He said he may not have been “100 per cent up to speed” with the rules, having returned from three weeks abroad. The one he breached has been in place since July.
Corbyn said he’d made a “mistake”. Presumably of judgement. Or was the error just that he’d allowed himself to get caught (the photographer was one of the nine)? It doesn’t really matter.
They both apologised, which is a rare thing in Britain where it sometimes feels as if getting people in public life to express any degree of contrition is on a level with getting Donald Trump to forward income tax payments to the US Treasury.
So that’s OK then, time to move on and turn our attention to the celebrity drunkenly caving in the windows at the home of their ex or the footballer breaking the sound barrier on the M1 in their Lamborghini.
Except that no, no it’s not OK and no, this is not the time to “move on”.
You would hope, and expect, that my fictional celeb and sportsman (currently only male footballers get paid enough to afford supersonic motors) would be brought to book for their misdeeds. There would probably be a fuss if they didn’t – and rightly so.
So here’s a question: why shouldn’t Corbyn and Johnson be treated the same way? Yes they made “mistakes” but a mistake is something a defence brief might use in the mitigation part of a sentencing hearing, not as a means of justifying a not guilty verdict. The same goes for an apology.
If I were on the bench, I’d be minded to tip both out with the trash left over from the intern’s Starbucks run because, for better or worse, both these men have either inserted themselves into public life (Johnson) or been elected to it (Corbyn). In the midst of a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of their fellow Britons, and scarred tens of thousands more, wrecked businesses, pushed people out of their jobs, spoiled their educations, it simply isn’t good enough. They should have known better.
Yes, the coronavirus restrictions can be confusing. They aren’t always terribly logical. Corbyn would have encountered many more than nine people had he and his friends met up in a pub, even one taking social distancing seriously. Johnson wouldn’t have had to wear a mask if he joined them.
But while the rules are imperfect, they’ve been imposed for a reason: to rein in the second wave. Parliament has agreed to their imposition (although it should continue to keep them under review because, democracy). They are part of the law of the land. That means they should be obeyed, which isn’t going to happen if prominent people are given a pass so long as they say they’re sorry for having been a bit of a berk.
The rot was, of course, started by the Prime Minister’s sinister svengali Dominic Cummings, with his virus-laden drive up to Durham in search of childcare, and his testing his eyesight at a local beauty spot while his more public spirited countrymen and women were passing on saying goodbye to dying relatives with a view to keeping the virus at bay.
Why should people take the rules seriously if senior government officials don’t? Cummings might not technically have broken them (although that’s still occasionally debated) but he was breaching their spirit and my guess would be he was aware of that.
The message disseminated by his actions was of one rule for them and one rule for us, so we might as well ignore them if the plod’s not around to enforce them.
There is one way to change this: it is to make an example of public figures when they get caught with their pants down. Setting an example has worked ever since teachers came up with the idea of getting the class to pipe down for the rest of the year by making the kid with the biggest mouth stand in the corner for the entirety of the lesson on the first day of a new academic year.
Applying that technique to public figures might go some way towards reversing a worrying trend.