Boris Johnson has finally gone full Marie Antoinette – only he’s hogging all the cake

Yesterday’s announcement of an inquiry into alleged anti-Muslim racism in the government meant I was going to begin with one of the more eye-watering quotes from Boris Johnson’s terrible novel Seventy-Two Virgins. (Seventy-Two Virgins is the title, not who bought it.) But further partygate revelations – and finally a police investigation – instead force me to tong open another work in the Johnson canon: The Churchill Factor. This minimum opus is riddled with sensational factual errors but is meant to advance Johnson’s big theory that we shouldn’t write off great men as “meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history”. On the contrary, great men turn history, and he’s one of them. (Johnson, obviously – not Churchill. Britain’s greatest wartime leader is chiefly deployed as a useful proxy for the narcissist author.)

It is, then, entirely fitting of Boris Johnson’s historical stature that as Russia stands on the brink of an invasion of Ukraine, the talk is all of the PM’s singalong birthday party during the first lockdown. Has ever a meretricious bubble been more in need of a pin? A vast tide of something is flowing out of Downing Street, but it doesn’t smell like history.

Needless to say, that isn’t the line Johnson’s few remaining allies are going with. Sent out into no-man’s land this morning, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, claimed that what people were really concerned about was the genuinely serious situation in Ukraine. Sorry, but no. This populist government can’t have it both ways. You can’t forever claim to be the voice of the people, and then claim that what the people are really worried about are Russian troop manoeuvres on the Ukraine border. I’m afraid that is just total bollocks. “The people” are not talking about that very much at all. Whether the cabinet and other serious folk reckon they should be is a separate matter – but it’s a little too late for coulda-woulda-shoulda from an administration that has spent the past two and a half years stoking every single trivial and diversionary culture war that it possibly could. Go to the pub, go online, stand at the school gates. What the people are actually doing their nuts about is the endless revelations of Downing Street partying. Such is life? Such has this government made it.

Anyway, a recap on the latest party, which took place in June 2020 in the cabinet room and involved a birthday cake, singing, and 30 guests, including Lulu Lytle, the PM’s interior designer. Clearly, the presence of the personal decorator is the rococo detail that really elevates this tale, although according to her own account, Lulu seems to have been what you might call present but not involved. In all honesty, I can’t help feeling rather sorry for Lytle during the whole saga of the Downing Street flat refurbishment. She is simply a decorator who took a commission, clearly with no understanding that she was working for a couple of greedy chancers who didn’t have a clue how they were going to pay for it, nor particularly cared. Last night’s statement from her firm says Lytle “entered the cabinet room briefly as requested”, and that she was “waiting to speak to the prime minister”. I bet she was. She was probably thinking this was her best chance of asking Johnson if he’d found his lost wallet yet.

But I’m afraid that upon receipt of the latest information, we’re going to have to raise the odd question about the dates involved. Here is Lytle’s office last night, confirming that she “was present in Downing Street on 19 June [2020] working on the refurbishment”. And yet, more than five months after that date – on 29 November 2020 – here is Boris Johnson emailing Lord Brownlow that his flat is “a tip” and he is “keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it”. Has some tear opened up in the time-chintz continuum? Can work be under way five months before the prime minister is keen to get it started? It does all serve as a reminder that the flat refurbishment scandal has yet to be got to the bottom of by any of the various Clouseaus who’ve had a crack at it.

Then again, it’s just one of a cavalcade of shameful businesses, frequent lies and serial obfuscations that were always the inevitable result of putting Johnson in Downing Street. I wonder if the great political theorists of the Conservative party still want to boast that they are all “priced in” to Johnson’s long-lasting appeal. They are now reduced to “welcoming” criminal investigations into his Downing Street.

Meanwhile, the impression that the public were treated like mugs by the overlords who made the rules has become thoroughly overriding. I now have no idea why I couldn’t have had a sixth birthday party for my daughter that same week of Johnson’s gathering. After all, she’d been working in a classroom with her friends all day – what’s the difference if they then all come round to ours/the cabinet room, and carry on with cake there? They’re all in a bubble too, aren’t they? Had I known that Nadine Dorries would have defended me to the hilt, I would have gone ahead and thrown the usual sugarfest. And yet, are we perhaps all on the point of developing a sneaking suspicion that Nadine only defends very important and powerful people who give her jobs at which she’s useless? As for the prime minister’s wife, maybe she just couldn’t bear the look on her big kid’s little face if he was denied his 56th birthday tea.

Quite how long Conservative MPs and the wider British public will continue to indulge him is another matter. Realism appears to be getting the upper hand on cakeism. Boris Johnson promises you “global Britain” but in fact makes your country a laughing stock. He promises to level you up but he just drags everything down to his level. He promises you “the people’s government” but you get the Downing Street version of Marie Antoinette’s ridiculous hameau. He tells you that you can have your cake and eat it, but the only one who actually gets cake is him.

In the end, Johnsonism is little more than a con trick, and the jig looks increasingly close to being up. Perhaps that is beginning to dawn upon even him. Enemies of the naff will shudder at reports that Johnson has installed a fire pit in the Downing Street garden, but it may well be the only constructive thing he’s ever done. After all, familiarising himself with fiery pits would seem to be an increasingly wise long-term hedge.

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