Perhaps a gathering of a dozen or so people with cheese and wine doesn’t constitute a party. Perhaps a gathering of a couple of dozen people at a place of business drinking wine and munching nibbles doesn’t constitute a party. Perhaps a group of politicians and journalists doing important political and journalistic stuff while drinking wine and eating a canapé (or two) is more like work than partying. “There was no party” is the official line from No.10. Perhaps there wasn’t, but there was a gathering in Downing Street of various people from different households during lockdown at Christmas last year, and it looks as though there was one rule for them, and another for the rest of us.
Perhaps there was – quite literally.
So when the Prime Minister and other Government Ministers say “no rules were broken”, they are right insofar as the letter of the law exempts Crown property from lockdown regulations. Last Christmas the letter of the law also exempted gatherings organised by a public body or a political body, which No.10 manifestly is.
So “all rules were followed” in accordance with the letter of the law. And when Allegra Stratton, then the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, is heard to be joking about whether a gathering for cheese and wine constitutes a party, she may be genuinely bemused. “What is the answer?” she pleads, as the others laugh at her. “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced,” she sniggered.
“It wasn’t a party; it was cheese and wine,” jokes another aide.
But it isn’t really funny, is it?
The Queen was in a support ‘bubble’ during lockdown last year, but she chose to sit alone at the funeral of her husband of 73 years, the Duke of Edinburgh. A member of her Windsor support staff could have joined her: ‘HMS Bubble‘, as it was called, included many who sacrificed their own normal family lives to shield the Queen. But knowing that many thousands of her subjects were grieving as they buried their loved ones with little ceremony, no hymns, and only a handful of mourners, she chose to worship and weep as so very many did – isolated, alone, and bereft. She had a vast pew all to herself, and the image has become a defining one of her reign and of the Covid pandemic. She wept with those of us who wept: she felt what we felt; her tears were ours, as we laid our mothers in the earth and watched our fathers disappear into ash.
The question of the Downing Street party is not whether or not cheese and wine constitutes a party; nor is it one of whether such gatherings were permitted on Crown property. It is, quite simply, the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. And as long as the Prime Minister sustains the line that “there was no party”, it is heard to be a lie. And as long as Ministers sustain the line that “all rules were followed”, it is heard to be the literal truth, but a betrayal of the intention of the law.
Shylock might seek to claim his pound of flesh quite literally, but since the taking of that flesh makes no mention of a drop of blood being spilled, the flesh cannot be taken: the quality of mercy prevails; the spirit soars above the words. The broader purpose of the law lies beyond its letter, and the purpose of the lockdown law last Christmas was to decrease the number of people infected, and so the number of deaths. The spirit of the law therefore extended to a cheese and wine gathering for politicians and journalists in Downing Street, not least because the Prime Minister and those in No.10 ought to have led by sacrificial example, as the Queen did. They should have been mindful of St Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 8: the law may permit them to gather and eat cheese and drink wine, but might their doing so lead others astray? Might their Downing Street party which was not a party become a stumbling block to those who are weaker in understanding? Might their exercise of a legal freedom cause others to stick two fingers up and say, “Hypocrites! I shall eat, drink and party as much as I like! I shall never again believe a word these venal Tories say.”
Might the cynicism engendered by the Downing Street party not lead others to disobey the letter of the law, and possibly even lead to their deaths?