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The line on ‘Partygate’ doesn’t fit the crime

Issue: ‘Partygate’

Your boss (i.e. the Prime Minister) has been issued a fixed penalty notice for attending a party in contravention of the government’s (i.e. his) Covid regulations. This is one of several problematic gatherings the Prime Minister is suspected of attending. The Prime Minister will be addressing the House of Commons to respond to this historic occasion (he is the first sitting PM to be found to have broken the law while in office).

Context

Partygate has been hammering your boss for months now. It’s only with the war in Ukraine – and process cover afforded by the Met Police investigation – that coverage has slowed. For weeks now, the line has been to ignore ‘partygate’ because other issues – Ukraine, cost of living – require the Prime Minister and government’s full attention making now not the ideal time to change horses.

As the PM prepares to address the House, it remains unclear whether the Metropolitan Police will be issuing further notices for any other gatherings. Meanwhile, former Cabinet Office mandarin Sue Gray is yet to publish her report into the parties (completed before the Met announced their investigation). Adding further uncertainty is the fact ex-No.10 staff Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain might also brief further damaging material should the Prime Minister be seen to be escaping sanction.

The ‘line to take’

“It’s not as if [Boris Johnson] walked into a rave in Ibiza.”

  1. A senior government source

Line review

Our initial response: Yikes. 

For one, the tone is waaaaay too dismissive. It also leaves several obvious rejoinders including: ‘It’s not as if people could see their dying loved ones in hospital at the time.’ For that matter, it also reminds voters of all of the travel they had to forsake because of the pandemic.

To be fair, there is no ‘great’ line to take given the relatively poor cards held by No. 10 on partygate, which is why No. 10 have been appealing for a sense of perspective in their briefings, per the above line. And while the fixed penalty notice received by the Prime Minister clearly isn’t equivalent to, say, murder, it is a violation of the law, a first for an occupant of No. 10. Then there is the related question of whether the PM misled Parliament in his responses to questions about partygate – which is the most serious wrongdoing a PM can commit under our system of government. 

The trouble with No. 10’s line is that even the most minor of parties is a major party given most people in the country were not only not partying at the time, but also not attending any funerals, weddings, or leaving their house, on to the recommendation – and this is the important bit – of the government and public health experts at the time.

Put differently, most people aren’t judging on an ‘Ibiza vs. quiet back garden gathering’ scale, i.e. as a matter of degree, they’re judging on a ‘right vs. wrong’ scale, i.e. as a matter of principle. A better line would have acknowledged the principle and *then* brazened it out. 

The line is also a hostage to fortune; it suggests that a more vibrant party – even if not quite Ibiza-esque – would be problematic and worthy of sanction/approbation. It invites voters to judge each gathering on No. 10’s Ibiza scale. This is obviously a problem when the Met has yet to issue fixed penalty notices for other parties we know of that are, on their face, more problematic than the cabinet room cake party for which the PM (and chancellor) have already been sanctioned.

Line rating:

Blinder

Strong

Does the job

Problematic

Piss poor

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