The Prime Minister sat rather dejected in the House of Commons yesterday, and spent two hours iterating (and reiterating) how sorry he was for sharing the Cabinet Room of No.10 with a birthday cake on 19th June 2020. He often sounded rather bored of having to refer honourable members to the answer he had given previously, and occasionally looked rather irritated that he was having to answer to Parliament at all. Many called for him to resign, including a few of his own back-benchers, but his defence leitmotif was coherent and consistent, if not strong and stable: he must remain in office for the sake of Ukraine, and to “deliver on the priorities of the British people”.
He occasionally sounded rather bored of having to repeat that, too.
Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, injected a bit of holiness in the secular proceedings:
Though you would not know it, I also think that most Members of this House know that justice and mercy and humility also go hand in hand—a fact known by many who watch these proceedings too. In asking us to forgive him on behalf of all those John Robinsons we represent, my right hon. Friend could not have made a more humble apology. But justice leading into mercy relies on a very old-fashioned concept, and that is repentance. What assurance can he give us that nothing of this kind will ever happen again?
The Prime Minister replied:
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I am heartily sorry, as I have said. I wish it had not happened and I wish that things had been totally different. What I have already done, as the House will know, is take steps to change the way we do things in No. 10. But that, in itself, is not enough. I accept full responsibility myself for my actions.
There was no forthright assurance that the behaviour would not be repeated, perhaps because Boris Johnson knows himself very well, and with four or five other lockdown ‘parties’ in No.10 still being reviewed by the Met, it isn’t at all clear when a gathering of work colleagues in your normal workplace or home becomes a ‘party’ in the eyes of the police: it seems to depend on which political party you belong to, and which police force is judging your guilt.
To his credit, when the Prime Minister was asked directly about this apparent inequality under the law, he made it clear that he was in the House of Commons to answer only for his own law-breaking, which he has conceded, and for which he is very contrite.
At least for the cameras.
It didn’t long for reports of his subsequent private meeting with Conservative MPs to hit Twitter, where it was revealed (by a number of sources) that he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of being “less vociferous” in his condemnation of Vladimir Putin than he was of Priti Patel’s policy to deal with migrants crossing the Channel from France. Or, to quote accurately, he accused the Archbishop of being “less vociferous in his condemnation on Easter Sunday of Putin than he was on our policy of illegal immigrants”.
This is a little unfair, not least because Justin Welby has unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion: “The horrific and unprovoked attack on Ukraine is an act of great evil”, he said. The fact that he chose not to reiterate that in his Easter Day sermon, preferring instead to raise the morality of a policy which plans to send Channel migrants to Rwanda and declaring that it cannot “stand the judgment of God”, is immaterial. The Archbishop has been vociferous indeed in his condemnation of Putin, and Easter was another day.
The Church of England’s head of news in the comms team, John Bingham, tweeted that the Prime Minister was guilty of a “disgraceful slur” against the Archbishop of Canterbury. This has been picked up by a number of newspapers and presented as the ‘Church of England’ accusing Boris Johnson of a disgraceful slur, despite the allegation not being made in any official press release from Church House or Lambeth Palace, or even by any member of the clergy, let alone an archbishop. But Mr Bingham understands how the news media works, and how his tweet would be picked up.
And all it does is stoke the animosity, augment the cacophony, and perpetuate the dialogue of the deaf (or at least the hard of hearing). The Church Times has now waded in with: “‘If this does not warrant resignation, what does?’ Bishops criticise Boris Johnson“, where we read:
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said on Maundy Thursday: “If breaking the laws you have made, and then lying about it, does not require resignation, then what does? Our public life and discourse are being corrupted. Integrity is essential to public life.”
In a sermon preached in Chichester Cathedral on Easter Day, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “These laws are not simply a set of rules. . . The law binds us to each other in public bonds of honour and respect. They are to be applied by the judiciary to all people equally. This is easier said than done, but it is how we attempt to sustain truth and justice, irrespective of status, wealth, and power.”
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, suggested that the Prime Minister should consider his position. In a Twitter post on Tuesday of last week, he wrote: “Don’t know about you but I think if I had been found guilty and fined for breaking lockdown rules I would have felt the need to offer my resignation.”
Canon James Walters, Chaplain of the London School of Economics (LSE) and a professor in the university’s department for international relations, remarked on Twitter on Wednesday of last week: “When it’s okay for a Prime Minister to be found to have broken the law but stay in office we have crossed the Rubicon. This is a profound degeneration of British political life.”
Asked later, Canon Walters said: “We have never before had a British Prime Minister found to be in breach of the law. . . It is perfectly obvious that this will diminish respect for the rule of law among ordinary citizens of this country.”
Canon Walters, who founded the LSE Faith Centre, continued: “But my concern is as much about the international order which is currently in a very precarious state. Authoritarian regimes have normalised untruthfulness and flagrantly violate the rule of law, both domestic and international. . .
“It is essential for global security and freedom that we defend these principles. How can we do so if our own leaders see themselves as above them?”
Setting aside any personal political allegiance or bias, what is truly astonishing here is how judgmental and unforgiving these prelates are. Yes, the Prime Minister received a Fixed Penalty Notice for breaching his own lockdown laws, and yes, he has conceded he did wrong, and repented (kind of). But where’s the latitude which tolerates the possibility that he genuinely didn’t believe a brief gathering of work colleagues before a Cabinet meeting might indeed not constitute a ‘party’? What do these bishops make of the manifest law-breaking by the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales? One wonders how many members of the clergy did similar things in secret, or how many bishops know a parish priest who did, but decided to turn a blind eye. Did they take their dogs for a walk when they shouldn’t have done? Did they drive anywhere they oughtn’t? Did they sit on a park bench? Did they ever once enter their own churches after the Archbishop of Canterbury had issued his edict, which went above and beyond the law of the land, not to do so, even to pray? Did they never meet anyone outside their ‘bubble’? Did they never dare to enjoy a G&T with their work colleagues? Was there not one slice of birthday cake? Ever?
They talk about “how we attempt to sustain truth and justice, irrespective of status, wealth, and power”, which is interesting when a few (or more than a few) of their episcopal brothers (or sisters) are known to sustain lies and deny justice by virtue of their very episcopal status and power. You’d think those in the Glass House of Bishops might reflect more on the quality of mercy before throwing stones in Boris Johnson’s general direction, wouldn’t you?