Dear Mr Howell,
Thank you for your reply. The views you express echo those of other government ministers and deserve scrutiny.
The scope of concern
You may well have a bin reserved for the ravings of your ‘woke leftie’ constituents. But let’s be absolutely clear that the concerns being raised over Johnson’s recent law breaking and lying have nothing to do with political allegiance. The fury in your inbox is non-partisan – I would and should be writing this letter even if I was a lifelong Conservative voter. So, do not dismiss my argument as just leftie moaning. If UK politics descends to a point where truth, honesty and adherence to the ministerial code are mere preoccupations of the left, then I hope you’d agree we are in serious trouble. I fervently hope the government hasn’t reached that point yet, but I am beginning to wonder.
Nor is concern about Johnson’s actions confined to people who lost loved ones to Covid or even to that bigger group who simply made other huge sacrifices to follow Johnson’s rules. Even people who weren’t so cruelly impacted by lockdown restrictions can see that the government’s defence of Johnson amounts to a betrayal of trust and an affirmation of double standards. The groups listed above are a big demographic and are why Johnson’s behaviour has been criticized from all sides of the mainstream media.
So, let’s not try to side-line the issue as a concern of just the Left, just the Covid bereaved or just ‘the extreme lockdowners’. It’s much wider and much deeper, I’m afraid. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at your defence.
Stop using the Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) excuse
You claim that ‘Johnson has paid the fine’. But whether he paid £50 or £500,000, you are wrong to imply that this exonerates him. The Met issuing Johnson’s fine means that he had acted unlawfully – which is bad enough and, for a PM, a first in British history.
But Johnson can’t, in fact, even ‘pay his dues’. The hospital visitor who attacks a patient has committed an offence. But if a medical professional does the same thing then this is a different and far more serious offence because the professional has breached his own medical code of practice. Johnson is bound by the same kind of principle. Unlike other fine payers, he is in the unique position of being PM, with the power to both set the rules and legally require the entire country to follow them. He also has a special responsibility to follow the rules he set. Consequently, his law breaking has far more serious, far-reaching implications than the average lockdown fine payer, one which ‘an FPN’ can’t expunge – his law breaking is in a class of its own.
Stop pretending Johnson didn’t lie
You say you ‘don’t believe Johnson deliberately lied to parliament’ but this defence is literally incredible. The rules Johnson set for the pandemic lockdowns were, in the respects relevant here, very simple indeed – do not gather for non-essential reasons with more than x people. The question of whether his ‘gatherings’ qualified as parties is irrelevant.
The only key question is whether they were essential and clearly they weren’t – leaving do’s, birthday bashes, Christmas quizzes and the like are not essential. You know this Mr Howell. Therefore, for Johnson to claim that ‘he didn’t realise the events he attended weren’t allowed’ amounts to his saying that ‘he didn’t realise the non-essential gatherings – the leaving do’s etc – he attended were non-essential’, which is pernicious nonsense.
Since being a ‘non-essential gathering’ is something a child could easily detect, then it is manifestly absurd to suggest that a grown adult educated at Eton and Oxbridge might fail to spot it. If Johnson’s lawyers advised him to go for the ‘I didn’t realise’ line then frankly who are they trying to kid? You are really, really scraping the barrel if you claim you walked into a room buzzing with food, drink and party games but you didn’t realise it was a non-essential event’.
Your support for Johnson here, Mr Howell, is a skin-saving ‘defence of the indefensible’ which treats your constituents like fools and brings shame on the Conservative party. Let’s get to the nub shall we? Johnson understood the rules he set but went on to break them and then to lie because he assumed he could get away with it.
Johnson’s actions also need measuring against conventional standards. Even if he hadn’t attended a single gathering, he is responsible for the actions of staff breaking the law on his own premises. Prior to Johnson, being ultimately responsible for events like this would have led automatically to resignation, yet Johnson himself hasn’t resigned over this. In addition, he broke the law himself by attending non-essential gatherings, something which, in previous governments, would have been a clear-cut resigning offence, particularly as he attended not just one but 3 or more of these! By lying about his attendance, Johnson then broke the ministerial code which is also a resigning offence. Johnson has apparently committed not just one but at least three resigning offences (so far), a scandal which puts huge further strain on the credibility of your defence, Mr Howell.
Stop using Ukraine
Perhaps sensing the weakness of your defences, you try a different tack – Johnson should stay because we ‘need a stable government and leadership’. Here, you are primarily referring to the invasion of Ukraine. But this defence doesn’t hold up either.
Firstly, there is no requirement that leadership changes must be put aside during crises. The French are having their elections right now. Secondly, it is precisely because there’s a dangerous war on that we need a trustworthy, reliable, honest leader in charge. A PM who refuses to publish the Russia report, who has been officially charged with breaking the law, and proved himself to be profoundly untrustworthy and dishonest is the very last person the UK needs at the helm during such dangerous times with the West and East in confrontation and the conversation about nuclear war re-opened. If we cannot trust this man to follow his own rules then why should we trust him to be honest on either domestic or international matters or command respect over the imposition of restrictions that might become essential for us all in a worsening international crisis.
It is disturbing to know that the UK is being led by a morally bankrupt prime minister in facing down a dangerous despot like Putin. In times of crisis trust in leadership is paramount. You are right that we need a ‘stable government and leadership’. But right now we don’t have this – Johnson’s dishonesty poses a real security risk and a government so willing to prop up a leader who is a certified liar with no moral compass and sanctioned for breaking the law, isn’t a stable one. I’m sure you can appreciate this Mr Howell. We know your reasons here for ‘defending the indefensible’ but it is bad democracy and doesn’t make for stable government in times of crisis.
Stop getting round the law
Your final defence appears to be simply that ‘Johnson has apologised and there are now more important issues to be dealt with’. This defence is quite extraordinary. Let’s put it to the test and see how it would work for ‘ordinary folk’. According to your argument, if I break the law, all I need to do to be excused is apologise and say I ‘have important things to do’. You know, Mr Howell, that this attempt to sidestep the law wouldn’t work for me and since we hold our government to the same standards then it shouldn’t work for them either. Your attempt to defend Johnson here by appeal to his ’apology’ is simply an especially clear example of your government’s tacit subscription to the view that the rules you give us don’t apply to you.
Your defences of Johnson in your email are a malign product of a constitution that is fundamentally held together by nothing more than ‘gentlemen’s agreements to do the right, honourable thing’ and a government apparently without an honourable person in it as far as the eye can see.
Stop defending the indefensible
All voters, including Conservatives, should be deeply alarmed that this government is enabling Johnson to stay in power despite his having committed numerous resigning offences, broken the law and lied about it. The ‘defence of the indefensible’ here by you and other Conservative ministers is an appalling act of collusion with a leader who is now acting as if he is above reproach. In ignoring the ministerial code and standards of truth and integrity, this government is starting to act like the Putin cabal it seeks publicly to distinguish itself from.
The government is waiting, as always, for the ‘noise’ to die down – for people to forget the many powerful condemnations in and beyond the house of commons and have their resolve wobbled by the mainstream media gradually slipping back into their ‘both sides of the story’ stance. But the message this time is that we will not oblige you by ‘moving on’. This has nothing to do with party politics – with whose tribe you are in. It’s about two simple, foundational things that are supposed to hold our democracy together – honesty and integrity.
18 April 2022
Ed: The above letter was in response to this reply by Mr Howell to an earlier letter.
From: John Howell MP
Sent: 14 April 2022 09:51
Subject: No 10: gatherings (Case Ref: JH84064)
Thank you for your email. I have read your email and I have taken on board the points made. In weighing these up I do not believe that the Prime Minister has deliberately lied to Parliament over this issue. As I understand it, the fixed penalty notice has been paid and an apology given. As has been said, what we need now is stable government and leadership. There are now important issues to be dealt with and I am not going to be writing to the 1922 Committee to demand a new leadership election. It is time to move on and ensure that these issues are dealt with. I am sure that whatever I write some will see it as simply accepting a party line but these are my views.
John Howell OBE MP FSA FRGS ACIArb
Member of Parliament for the Henley Constituency