Bodyslamming Boris: Partygate? It's pro-wrestling...
Tactical leaks aren't scoops and the right-wing press isn't on your side.
I probably should leave this newsletter blank. The proper thing to do is to wait for Sue Gray to report. All will be revealed by Sue Gray, or, perhaps another exquisitely-timed photo, video, or email dropping into the hands of Pippa Crerar at The Mirror or ITV News’ Paul Brand.
Crerar and Brand have been the main conduits for the partygate story — a saga with more false endings than Lost — with a walk-on part for the Prime Minister’s former right-hand mekon, Dominic ‘Classic Dom’ Cummings, who has peppered his gnomic tweets and prolix Substack posts with nods, winks, and practically cryptographic claims about further illegal gatherings.
All of this led up to today’s Withnail & I non-apology apology from Boris Johnson, in which he effectively claimed that he went to a party by mistake and that he had absolutely no idea where all those fine wines1 came from. “Are you the farmer?” “No, Prime Minister, I’m your Principal Private Secretary.”
The story of the story — the timing and placement of partygate revelations — matters much more than the actual content of them. Just as the Owen Patterson affair was swiftly followed by a rash of second job stories and ersatz shock from columnists — manufactured surprise about facts well-known in Westminster for years — it would not have taken more than a year and a tactical leaking spree for details of the parties to emerge if we had a political press that wasn’t almost entirely reliant on access.
The cosiness between politicians/advisors/assorted political operators and the journalists who report on them results in a kind of class solidarity. Despite professional wrestling-style sparring in interviews, prominent hacks often break kayfabe to explain how hard politicians have it and how the public simply doesn’t understand. This is only exacerbated by the high-speed revolving door between political reporting and political comms.
There was a telling line in Politico’s London Playbook email yesterday — a bulletin edited by Alex Wickham, who is said to be godfather to one of Boris and Carrie Johnson’s children — on the topic of the party invite sent by the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds:
The Guardian’s Rowena Mason notes Reynolds’ use of the word “we” in “we thought it would be a nice idea” — Playbook is steered toward it meaning Reynolds and his team of officials…
Too often the Westminster press pack is “steered” in one direction or another.
The former Sun editor David Yelland — now retired from the ring and still sour about the shoddy treatment dealt out to him by Rupert Murdoch — tweeted:
I can easily name ten, maybe as many as 20 UK political journalists who must have known or should have known about this Johnson party. Their editors would fire them. Except some of those mates of Boris are editors…
… one member of the government walking past the back of Downing Street on the way to St James’s Park that evening was surprised by the volume of the noise in the garden. “I hadn’t realised they were having a party,” they said.
And yet — as Yelland points out — we’re meant to believe that the amassed political journalists of Britain did not even hear a whisper about the rule-breaking until the leaking began over a year on.
Even yesterday, when it was clear that the consensus among political hacks was that the story still had ‘cut through’, The Sun’s led with a story from its political editor and former boyfriend of the Prime Minister’s current wife, Harry Cole, burbling about the “PM’s plea” to get more people to get boosters, pegged to a tenuous tennis-related headline (Don’t Be A Novak… Get Boosted).
Cole was bylined on The Sun’s front page again today, chasing the pack with a story headlined It’s my party and I’ll lie low if I want to, aware that, with Johnson due to face Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, he couldn’t ignore it. That The Sun’s deputy editor James Slack2 was the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson throughout the period covered by partygate and, as Private Eye revealed, the paper had its own rule-breaking Christmas Party in 2020 surely plays no part in its nervous coverage3.
There’s something faintly ludicrous about the BBC’s Ros Atkins dramatically intoning the words “a long table laden with crisps” in his latest explainer, but obviously, for people who were unable to be the dying and attend funerals because they were sticking to the rules that those at the heart of government set then flouted there’s nothing funny about it.
But this is not the first, second, or even third major story on rule-breaking by senior politicians and advisors. Before Matt Hancock resigned in June 2021, I wrote in this newsletter that:
… we are so often told that “this time” will be different, that “this time” the hypocrisy, the blatant disrespect, the contempt for the public will tip the balance… but “this time” is like last time and the time before that and the time before that.
There is a difference this time in that The Times, The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph — Boris Johnson’s once and future home — have scented the public mood and swung behind it, deciding with pure opportunism that for the project to continue, the frontman has to go.
Disinclined to share their bread, the right-wing press is giving us a circus with a clown as the central act; pointing to Boris Johnson’s painted face, pretending that they never noticed that red nose before. There is a willingness to feed him to the lions while ignoring the other occupants of the clown car.
Takes Sarah Vine’s last two Daily Mail columns (one from Monday, the other from Today). In the first, once you cracked through a sour candy coating of rage (Rage doesn't even begin to cover how I feel about No.10's damn stupidity), you reach a soft centre of praise:
I spent half my life in lockdown listening to Matt Hancock bellowing down the telephone to my now ex-husband, explaining why if the Government didn’t lock everyone up the bodies would be piling up in the streets.
Every time I walked past his study door I would catch snippets of the Prime Minister talking to the Cabinet via Zoom, working like a dog – and I do mean like a dog – to get the country out of the crisis created by Covid.
They barely slept, they agonised over every decision. The Prime Minister himself practically died, and yet he soldiered on. They all did. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop.
Putting aside Sarah Vine eavesdropping on Cabinet meetings and the awful prose (“…and I do mean like a dog” conjures visions of Boris Johnson licking his own bollocks and attempting to hump anything that moves4) this is a perfect example of specific criticism and generalised praise. A chalk circle is being drawn around Johnson, the implication being that it’s just him and some dispensable spads and civil servants to blame.
Today’s column was even more explicit — I still believe the Tories are the right choice to lead Britain. But if someone doesn't get a grip soon they will lose the next election — opening with a slab of true blue fan fiction from Vine:
For the first time since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, I'm worried about the country's future. I am by no means a blind cheerleader of the Government, but nevertheless, I do believe it to be infinitely preferable to the hard-Left alternative of the current Labour front bench or, for that matter, the Marxism-lite on offer from Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats.
… I hate to be so hard on No. 10 because I still believe that the Conservative Party is the right choice to lead this country, not least because were it not for the Herculean efforts of this administration we would not be enjoying the benefits of a world-beating vaccine programme.
But this is about much more than the career of any individual politician now.
This is about the reputation and the future of the Conservative Party — and, ultimately, the fate of Britain itself.
To genuinely believe Keir Starmer and Ed Davey are hard-left revolutionaries you need to be staring at them through an Overton Window so narrow it would be inhumane to use it as a cat-flap. Vine’s ‘rage’ and the wider ‘anger’ of The Daily Mail is opportunistic and transitory, it’s the spittle-flecked shouting of a professional wrestler selling a match.
The same goes for Matthew Parris, whose Saturday column in The Times was hailed by some as an “evisceration”5 of the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson leaves a scar on all who deal with him). Parris’ objection to Johnson is about optics — politeness, style and getting caught — and ultimately boils down to a dislike of being led by someone whose lies are so brazen.
When it comes to the substance of what the Johnson government is doing and the laws it is trying to implement, Parris is right behind them. The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill which explicitly targets Gypsy, Romany and Traveller people could have been drafted by him and, in fact, his column from 15 May 2021 (It’s time we stopped pandering to travellers) was cited repeatedly in evidence to the House of Lords’ Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Similarly, the Nationality & Borders Bill with its aim to criminalise asylum seekers who take ‘unsanctioned’ routes — those arriving by boat would face up to four years in prison, regardless of the validity of their claim — fits with his repeated calls, most recently in a column on November 26 2021, for the UK to withdraw from the 1951 Geneva Convention and “re-examine our obligation to refugees”.
In professional wrestling, a face turn is when a character who was previously a villain (a heel) turns ‘good’ (becoming a face). It’s all too easy to get caught up with the British media equivalent when a columnist like Parris or an entire paper like The Daily Mail start wailing on a politician. But context is everything and no front page or column should be considered in isolation. What’s the motivation? What’s the wider storyline?
On the whole, the British political press is reactive, not proactive. It is not a revelation that Boris Johnson is a liar and singularly unqualified to be Prime Minister. It’s just reached a point when it’s tactically useful to say it out loud for hacks and Conservative MPs alike. When it was necessary to pretend that Boris Johnson could scrape off the clown makeup and play statesman, most of the press got in line.
In the House of Commons earlier, Labour MP Chris Bryant asked: “How stupid does the Prime Minister think the British people are?” before delivering a cut-down version of Matthew Parris’ “vampire” column.
The answer is very stupid and it’s a view he learned and sharpened by spending many years in the British media.
Alright, given that the booze was sourced from the trench-like Tesco next to Westminster station, ‘fine wines’ is stretching it somewhat.
The author of The Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ front page, by the way.
Last month, Sun editor Victoria Newton appeared on the BBC News Channel and responded to questions about the party by sticking to the company line — as dictated to more junior staff on pain of substantially reduced career prospects — saying: “There was an investigation into that at the time, that’s all I’m prepared to say.”
The latter part is plausible, of course.
In response to me criticising Parris’ column, LBC host (and CotU subscriber) James O’Brien tweeted:
… [I] often wonder whether you will ever have anything positive or warm to say about anyone.
I like lots of things but this newsletter is a cold shower, not a warm bath.