While Australian politics can often seem absurd, the “partygate” scandal that threatens to drag British Prime Minister Boris Johnson down raises the bar a notch for hypocrisy and arrogance among senior members of a government.
Since taking power in 2019 and leading the country on its historic path out of the European Union, many Britons have loved Mr Johnson for his bold, clear policies and the person he displays of a cheerful, Eton-educated eccentric. He won a throbbing majority in the 2019 election, and after some stumbling blocks at the start of the pandemic, he was praised for Britain’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination program.
Then, six weeks ago, it emerged that Mr Johnson and his staff had held a series of bubbly parties involving dozens of staff, as the rest of the country was under heavy blockade, children could not gather for their parents’ funerals and grandparents were trapped in nursing homes. One of the parties was held while the Queen mourned the death of her husband Prince Philips.
The British have a different view of social hierarchies than most Australians. We have the high poppy syndrome and they have a hereditary aristocracy. Yet Mr Johnson’s outright refusal to abide by the same laws as everyone else has provoked disgust, even among many of his Conservative party colleagues. It made a mockery of his solemn promise during the pandemic that everyone would pull themselves together and the burden of lockdown would be shared fairly by everyone. He even invoked the Blitz spirit of World War II.
Since the scandal erupted, Mr Johnson has been trying to stand out and divert himself from the mess with a constantly changing set of excuses that would have been too stupid to be plot lines in the unbearably hilarious political satire of the BBC. The thick of it.
He claimed he was not familiar with the parties until photos surfaced showing him chatting wine at one in May last year, and emails showing his private secretary had issued the invitations. His chief adviser at the time and now sworn enemy, Dominic Cummings, said he was lying.
It is still unclear whether Mr Johnson can survive this disgrace. He has a majority of 80 seats in parliament and he has dominated all potential rivals in his party for the past two years. He digs in. He says he was under the impression that he technically complied with the rules, and he will wait for a report from a hand-picked senior official in the case, which few expect will shake the boat much.
If Mr Johnson survives, he will likely be a diminished figure. He is now 10 percentage points behind the Labor opposition in opinion polls and looks rattling. His face loss may weaken his ability to act in areas where he has taken the lead, such as efforts against climate change and the AUKUS military alliance. British ministers have come to Australia for their regular talks between Australia and the UK this week.