The pandemic arrived, uninvited. Clearly, no government wills on their country the appalling havoc a pandemic wreaks. But the Tories are ever the opportunists and Covid has offered them a tremendous opportunity to further themselves.
Profiteering and the Covid ‘box of tricks’
We are now familiar with their use of Covid PPE contracts to line their pockets. Once again, the keen instinct of the free-market predator was on display – “If it moves, how can I profit from it?”. We’ve come to expect this nefarious greed from the government, but it was still sickening to see such rampant profiteering during a national crisis, particularly as it jeopardised the wellbeing of our underfunded, exploited front-line care workers.
But Covid has also been used to support the Tory instinct of self-preservation by its useful role in maintaining their grip on power. During the entire pandemic, Covid has been kept in the wings as a malleable resource, to be wheeled out at key moments in order to protect them against exposure over other failings.
Concealing the Brexit mess
It was, arguably, a fortunate co-incidence that the pandemic came during the first stage of our departure from the EU in January 2020 since it enabled the government to put Covid centre stage at key moments whenever Brexit issues started gaining media traction.
Teasing out the relative contributions of Brexit and Covid in the UK’s economic difficulties is complex. For example, EU workers went home for many reasons – extra paperwork, pandemic restrictions, delays in issuing HGV licences and because they didn’t feel welcome and could see no future here.
However, the government has consistently taken advantage of this complexity to put Covid at the forefront of its excuses. We did get some hard facts. Forecasts showed that the impact of leaving the EU would be twice as bad (at 4%) as the pandemic (at 2%) in reducing the UK’s potential GDP impact of Brexit.
But, in the main, this kind of definitive data hasn’t been available. So, when Brexit problems managed to break through the Covid media focus and make the headlines, the government has exploited their ‘combined’ causal role to ‘rig the weightings’, so that Brexit effects are marginalised whilst Covid is spotlighted as the main culprit. For example, during the UK petrol supply crisis, the EU and Northern Ireland did not have comparable fuel shortages . Nevertheless, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, downplayed the role of Brexit, insisting that Covid was the “main reason”. Similarly, in January 2021, Johnson and Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, insisted that the main cause of export problems in the fishing industry was not red tape and the burden of extra checks imposed by Brexit, but ‘knock on effects of Covid’ such as restaurant closures.
This drip feed of Covid weighted explanations has, since Jan 2020, helped to protect the public from knowing the actual harms caused by Brexit.
The ‘joy’ Of Covid
Throughout the pandemic, Johnson was subjected to international criticism for his tardy ineptitude over initiating lockdowns. But Covid also enabled him to clamber out of the doghouse where he pumped up the narrative surrounding each lockdown exit with overblown, blitz spirit, tub thumping pronouncements such our “irreversible, one-way road to freedom”. He knew that the country was desperate for the return of its liberty and hence fully primed to laud him as ‘the Covid hero’.
The role of Covid as Johnson’s ‘get out of jail card’ is also evident in his excessive use of the ‘vaccine roll out’ to pardon himself. Reference to this achievement has been his stock answer to almost any question put to him in 2021, including questions about his own dishonesty and the UK’s economic decline. Johnson used the vaccine success as a frequently irrelevant but relentless stick to beat back criticism throughout 2021. But the use of Covid as a propaganda weapon had to be deployed in a different way with the arrival of Partygate.
On 30 November 2021, the Daily Mirror published news that Johnson had broken Covid lockdown rules by allowing a party at No 10 on 18 December 2020. The video of Allegra Stratton mocking the rules in a mock press briefing horrified the nation as reports of other parties also began to emerge, as reported by ITV News.
Around this time, Omicron had been increasing its grip in the UK and this enabled Johnson to ramp up the ‘Omicron danger’ narrative within days of the ‘Partygate’ story breaking. Of course, Omicron was in fact spreading fast but my point is that the Omicron narrative was used by the government and the media to quash the initial Partygate scandal. What changed after the arrival of Partygate was not the presence of Omicron but the sudden switch to a ‘war footing’ narrative about it.
Just a week after the Mirror story was published, Johnson confirmed that “England will move to Plan B following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant’”. Prof Chris Whitty warned at the news conference that “records will be broken”, and that people should “prioritise what matters” with regards to social mixing. Johnson’s “turbo charged booster campaign” also took centre stage – it was “absolutely vital” that everyone gets a booster and the ‘Omicron Appeal was triggered.
This switch of focus was echoed in the mainstream media. Public fury about Partygate was still raging in the real world and on social media. But in the two weeks after the Mirror disclosures there is a discernible shift of news media attention away from the scandal. The BBC press preview, for example, featured Partygate initially but the agenda became dominated, within days, by Covid matters such as anti-viral research for a Covid pill, bed blocking, vaccination for pregnant women and calls for action on Omicron. By the 6 December, Partygate had somehow disappeared from the BBC press preview altogether.
The government had banked on the Christmas festivities calming public indignation about Partygate and dwindling media attention suggested this had worked. But there’s ‘no peace for the wicked’ and the New Year ushered in yet more revelations, this time concerning the worst instance of Partygate yet, the BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) party on 20 May, 2020. This ‘faux pas’ is the most shocking instance (to date!) because it was indisputably a pre-planned party (not a work gathering) attended by Johnson and occurring during the strictest lockdown. It showed contempt for a country making enormous sacrifices to follow rules the government itself had imposed, sacrifices which for thousands, caused unbearable trauma and grief. The outrage is now cross party and national.
We are all holding our breath to see if Johnson can ride this one out. Opportunism as a Tory government modus operandi has been fuelled by Johnson’s personality since he came to power and whilst he is embarrassed by the latest allegations, Partygate also poses a delicious challenge for him. Johnson behaves like a narcissist who views holding onto public favour despite behaving appallingly as a badge of honour, and the worse he behaves whilst retaining their favour, the bigger the prize to his ego. So, Partygate represents a fabulous opportunity for him to play this game, one, this time, spiced up by his knowledge that his premiership hangs on his getting away it.
Already the stage is being set for Johnson’s come back by minsters and the media. Charles Walker was quoted on the BBC News on 12 January, saying:
“I just think there was some poor decision making – I don’t think it was malicious in intent”
And in Prime Minister’s Questions on the same day, after displaying cod empathy (“I sympathise deeply”) and deferring (“We must wait until the enquiry”), Johnson pulled out of his bag of gaslighting tricks the inevitable Covid pièce de résistance, waxing lyrical about the vaccine and booster roll out success.
Whilst Covid is the cause of Johnson’s (lockdown-breaching) Partygate troubles, the virus is also about to be used as his savour in this drama. There is a perfect Covid situation brewing and ready to be wheeled out to exonerate Johnson – to force a level of ‘forgiveness’, create distraction and ‘move us on’. This is that the latest and worst Partygate scandal coincides with an apparent levelling off of Omicron cases in the UK. London rates are reducing and in the rest of the country rates are plateauing everywhere except the North East.
This more positive picture is only just emerging and may be temporary, but Johnson will most definitely whip out the Churchillian narrative that he has ‘ridden the crest of the wave’, ‘held firm’ between the lockdown sceptics and the anxious medics, and ‘won’.
The party on 20 May 2020 is so damning for the PM that I have no idea whether his ploy will succeed. This time it may be insufficient for him to recover in the polls or in the eyes of his own side. But holding the putative prize of ‘having finally conquered Covid’ is huge. So, whether the claim turns out to be true or not, he will throw caution to the wind and insist that, although he’s been a ‘very bad boy’ we must forgive him because he has nevertheless saved the day. In reality, he should wait until the data is far, far clearer. But he will not pass up this opportunity to save himself and neither will his backbenchers if they see this as the party’s route back into public favour. Johnson will push the ‘I’ve beaten Covid’ narrative earlier than is scientifically advisable, but it will be extremely powerful and have the potential to rescue him from disgrace once again.
For as long as we have Covid, it will provide a rich arsenal of tactics mobilised by this government to camouflage problems and massage public thinking in order to maintain power.
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