Johnson may still lead his party, but parties mean he cannot effectively lead the people

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Take the bleakest moments of our two mid-winter lockdowns and imagine dealing with all of that during Christmas. You might then have some glimmer of understanding of just how bleak last Christmas was for Londoners.

While some lucky nonagenarians were getting a taste of one of the world’s first vaccine rollouts, most residents of the capital were sheltering in place from a sudden surge of a dangerously infectious new variant under England’s strictest lockdown rules. Having insisted for several weeks that Christmas had to protected, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was then obliged to cancel the festive season’s family reunions and beg everyone to stay home to spare the hospitals. At the time, up to 500 people a day were dying in England from COVID-19 and Europe had slammed shut the borders to keep out what was then being called “the Kent mutation”.

So it is not hard to image the anger of the English earlier this month when they learnt that while they were exchanging Christmas wishes on Zoom, the government was exploiting Parliament’s “permitted worker” status for boozy work parties. The tier 3 restrictions that snuffed out celebrations for ordinary Londoners explicitly prohibited gatherings of two or more people in an indoor space: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.”

A leaked video broadcast on December 8 this year captured staff at the Prime Minister’s official residence, No. 10 Downing Street, laughing their way through a practice run of a press conference, imagining cheeky questions about their knees-up. Picture how well that would go down if any state or federal staff in Australia were caught sniggering about breaching the laws they insisted everyone follow.

Just over a week later, after the Liberal Democrats won the historically safe Conservative seat of North Shropshire with a 34 per cent swing in a byelection, Mr Johnson said he took full responsibility for “failing to get the message across” about his government’s agenda because it had been “obscured by all this other stuff”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.Credit:Getty Images

The catastrophe now is that the Johnson government has matters of consequence to communicate to a COVID-weary public but is still drowned out by “other stuff” – namely leaked revelations of two other lockdown-era parties.

One took place at Christmas in the office of the Cabinet Secretary, who was asked to investigate the government’s quasi-speakeasy; the other was held at Downing Street in May – the night before then-health minister Matt Hancock told the public to avoid the temptation to socialise during the first burst of good weather in what was by then the sixth month of restrictions. And Mr Johnson is front and centre in photographs of that garden party. 

Despite the daily leaks of compromising photographs, video and emails and even though ministers are openly saying on radio that the Prime Minister is on his last chance, Mr Johnson may yet survive into the new year with his job intact.

Leadership spills are not easily organised in Britain – there are 361 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons and the rules require a year’s moratorium between attempts. But Mr Johnson’s leadership of his country is now dangerously compromised in ways that provide a lesson for any government asking its people to sacrifice for the greater good.

In a rerun of last year, a wildly infectious new coronavirus variant is sweeping through the population. Cruelly, Omicron is infecting and reinfecting the majority of Britons who rolled up their sleeves for vaccinations before embracing their freedoms in July. The current Health Minister, Sajid Javid, has refused to rule out further restrictions before Christmas and the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has already released unusually detailed advice spelling out why this must happen again.

How can Mr Johnson persuade people to give up human connection yet again when his government is so often seen to ignore its own rules with impunity? Clinging on to leadership of a party that is newly terrified for its future, he is in no position to consider and make unpopular decisions for the good of the nation.

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