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Of course, you shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you read in Private Eye (or anywhere else), but the latest edition contains a story that definitely has what the journalistic trade calls the ring of truth about it. Shortly after Prince Philip died last April, 10 Downing Street reportedly contacted the palace and suggested that a special dispensation in the then harsh lockdown rules about funerals might be appropriate in the circumstances.
Even at the time, and especially to Boris Johnson’s team, the idea that a quasi-state funeral for the Duke of Edinburgh would be confined, like anyone else’s, to 30 guests just seemed bizarre. Downing Street drinks parties were bigger than that. It’s the kind of event at which the entire establishment, obscure German princelings, foreign politicians, and the remaining crowned heads of Europe would be expected to gather. The limits on funeral attendance were due to be repealed in a few weeks anyway, and so, Downing Street reasoned, the public wouldn’t mind.
Maybe, but the Queen did mind. Her officials made it clear that she wanted to set an example rather than be an exception to the rules. And so, the scaled-back service went ahead, and we now have the famous picture of her with no one by her side at such a moment, observing social distancing and wearing a face-covering – the epitome of selfless duty and leadership.
When the revelations emerged of not one but two raucous, rule-busting parties in Downing Street the night before, that photograph of the royal widow alone, doing the right thing, contrasted with and symbolised all that was wrong with Downing Street culture. Boris Johnson, who was not at those particular parties, was shamed, and rightly so.
The point is that, to me at least, it seems as though there was an attitude in Downing Street that the ruling classes, or the establishment (those with wealth and power, status and prestige) have some right to be different – the fabled sense of entitlement – and it was assumed that everyone in the upper echelons of society shared this view.
I find it strange that a woman who stands at the apex of this world, in a hereditary role that is a relic of a feudal age, should have a more developed egalitarian instinct than elected democratic politicians, but there we are. She’s been getting the measure of public opinion for a long time.
Not so much Johnson and the gang. With the control of rules and laws in their hands, I felt as though they knew they could bend, break and suspend them as they wished, even as the rest of the country suffered. No doubt some in Downing Street thought they were making a compassionate gesture in suggesting that the duke’s funeral might be exempted from the regulations at the time. But it was not a compassionate gesture that was going to be extended to anyone else burying a loved one under the restrictions (and that would include this author).
To me it looked as though their first instinct as the sad news arrived was to work out how they might suspend the rules – because they could – rather than how to make the event happen within the rules. At least the nation was spared the obscene spectacle of Johnson reading some passage from the Bible about self-sacrifice and honour, like a straw-headed Jesus Christ delivering a sermon on a piffling pyramid of hypocrisy. I wonder if the opportunity to be centre-stage at such a great national and international occasion was another reason why the attention-seeking Johnson was keen on making it a special case.
The Queen knows better than most how Johnson views the world, because she is one of the more high-profile victims to have been damaged by his mendacious ways. If you recall, in the autumn of 2019, Johnson sent pseudo-toff Jacob Rees-Mogg off to Balmoral to ask the Queen to prorogue parliament so that Johnson could “get Brexit done” without the due scrutiny of MPs.
In my opinion, it was an abuse of an archaic administrative constitutional convention, which was never designed to be used in such a political way, to create a temporary dictatorship – and Johnson and his accomplices knew it, though they claimed otherwise. As monarch, the Queen was obliged to act on the advice of her prime minister, and so the prorogation was agreed. Uproar.
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After a legal challenge, the Supreme Court declared the prorogation “null and void”, and ordered parliament to get back to its proper work, as though it had not just been suspended on the order of the sovereign. It cannot have been a happy experience for the Queen to be dragged into another constitutional crisis after her prime minister had advised her that all was perfectly in order. It had, needless to say, never happened before; but during her 70 eventful years as our Queen (the anniversary falls on 6 February), she had never had to deal with a character quite as roguish as Johnson.
Optimistic Tory MPs these days talk about how the “culture” in Downing Street will soon change, saying that there’ll be a new team, that the prime minister is sorry about everything, and that the British people will soon have their trust in the government restored. Nonsense.
Boris Johnson may or may not be a “big dog”, but he is an old dog, and he doesn’t care for new tricks. At 57, his habits are, I’d suggest, rather ingrained – and from what I have seen, he seems to take enormous pleasure in tricking anyone who gets in his way, as he blunders and freeloads his way through the system. He has made a profitable career out of it.
Whether it’s the masters at Eton, a frustrated newspaper editor during his carefree days as a journalist, a Tory donor paying for a flat refurbishment, a betrayed wife or girlfriend, a gullible member of his cabinet, his own adviser on ministerial standards (the irony), Sue Gray, Leave voters, the DUP, the EU, red wall MPs, the entire electorate of the United Kingdom, or indeed his own sovereign the Queen, Johnson will push his luck as far as it will take him, and then a bit more.
If he does survive – and he still may not – no one should expect a “new Johnson” to crawl out from the wreckage. He’ll merely conclude that he’s gotten away with it again, and he’ll be right.