There’s a Jerry Seinfeld joke about spotting a lawyer by looking for the solitary person who flips the lid of a board game over, and actually reads the rules before starting to play. These are people alert to the detail of life.
A lawyer friend of mine is such a person. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, he actually read the legislation which granted the Government an extraordinary amount of executive power to deal with the pandemic. He texted me: ‘If you wanted to establish a dictatorship, you’d start off with something like this.’ He is not a conspiracy theorist, his point was that the PM was asking for a huge amount of public trust, and needed to be aware of the gravity of this request.
The abiding impression of Partygate is that he didn’t. In defiance of lockdown, Boris Johnson led a happy hour government where garden parties, birthday bashes and basement discos were all happening in his official residence.
Johnson’s excuses have evolved from outright denial to supposed ignorance of his own regulations. He is not a man who reads the inside of lids, but he faces a leader of the opposition who emphatically does. Keir Starmer spoke for both patients and carers when he talked about the guilt many had felt following lockdown regulations, and the sense of betrayal when the rulemakers were exposed as rulebreakers.
NHS founder Nye Bevan once memorably stressed the accountability it brought to health: ‘If a bedpan is dropped in a hospital corridor in Tredegar, the reverberations should echo around Whitehall.’ But what when the reverse is true, and overworked nurses are enraged by the pop of corks from Downing Street? Perhaps it is time for new, more serious leadership.