Americans have in recent years grown all too accustomed to the idea that senior government officials—even presidents—might breach protocols, smash norms, behave scandalously, and yet suffer few consequences. And so it may be surprising to some transatlantic observers that Britain’s prime minister could soon be ousted from office or forced to resign for briefly attending a garden soirée with several coworkers.
Legislators are awaiting—and citizens demanding—detailed and accurate answers that they could in theory get within days, thanks to an assiduous civil servant’s weeks-long investigation into this scandal. And this week London’s Metropolitan Police announced it too would examine the events, and possibly criminal actions.. But to truly understand how this scandal, known in the tabloids as “Partygate,” could have reached such potentially existential proportions for the right honorable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, one must first appreciate that it touches rather a few raw nerves in the British national psyche.
For one, rule-following. The United Kingdom enjoys no single written constitution, but has instead collated centuries of legislation in leather-bound books—alongside entire invisible libraries of unwritten, sometimes unspoken rules that govern personal politesse. Over the past two years, those twin universes—of laws enacted by Parliament and rules enforced by grandmother—have collided with the advent of government-mandated social distancing measures.
Consider the British public house, or pub, the center of community life in many a village, town, and urban neighborhood nationwide. In an effort to slow transmission of COVID-19, Johnson and his ministers introduced laws that outlined very specifically the time by which pubs had to close, whether punters had to sit or stand to drink, the size of meals that had to be consumed in order to drink, and the number of food-consuming drinkers that could sit together. Such barriers to beer-drinking were, needless to say, unpopular.
And it became mind-bogglingly complex to follow the restrictions, which varied from county to county and were rehashed, refashioned, and reintroduced with alarming regularity. Nevertheless, in a nation where cutting the line in a grocery store has long been an unforgivable breach of the public trust, Britons by and large stuck to these rules rigorously.
But they clearly irked Johnson, a famously libertarian libertine, even as he repeated them aloud begrudgingly on multiple occasions. And then came the reports that he and his cohort had broken them—flagrantly, uncaringly—with staffers organizing more than a dozen social gatherings at Downing Street and other government buildings, and Johnson attending several, at a time when others were prevented from doing so under threat of arrest.
Not surprisingly, many citizens feel more than a little miffed. Particularly when elected representatives come up with increasingly untenable excuses for the prime minister’s actions. One explained this week that one of the events in question, a birthday celebration, had not been preplanned but rather came into existence spontaneously after Johnson was “ambushed with a cake.”
Johnson helped drive out his predecessor, Theresa May, and then won his Conservative Party a massive parliamentary majority with a promise to “get Brexit done” in 2019. And until this summer, despite more than a year of coronavirus cock-ups and calamities from Johnson’s government as it presided over Europe’s highest death toll and lost billions to COVID-19–related fraud, his poll numbers stayed buoyant. But that is now changing. The altogether English adage “one rule for them and another for the rest of us” has driven much of the outrage. As a result, the Eton- and Oxford-educated premier’s well-workshopped “man of the people” image is now in tatters.
The British public is also famously attentive to questions of etiquette concerning the consumption of alcohol. Here, too, Johnson and his companions set off numerous alarms. It became difficult even for his practiced spin doctors to defend the professional culture at 10 Downing Street after one tabloid reported that staff there ordered a wine fridge for their office. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the request to “BYOB” (“bring your own booze”), it quite obviously didn’t belong on an invitation issued by Johnson’s principal private secretary to an event in the building’s garden in May 2020, which the prime minister has admitted attending. His assertion to Parliament that he assumed said shindig was a “work event” proved ruinous: Every self-respecting Brit recognized right away from the “BYOB” that this had been rather more than a cake-and-tea affair, meaning that Johnson either knew it was a party he was attending or—possibly worse—turned up empty-handed.