Editorial | DRaMA: Does Johnson envy Jamaica?
Boris Johnson probably wishes it were Jamaica, rather than Britain, of which he was prime minister. His ‘Partygate’ scandal would probably be embers.
It is unlikely that more than six in 10 voters would be wishing for his resignation. And it is almost certain that he would not have a hefty portion of his backbench sizing up whether to sack him.
Not even at the height of the Floyd Green scandal did Andrew Holness feel anything close to this pressure. And to heighten Mr Johnson’s envy, not only is there an ongoing police investigation into the boozy fetes at No. 10, on the eve of a top civil servant’s report claiming a “failure of leadership” at Downing Street, Jamaica’s Crown prosecutors extricated Mr Green, one of Mr Holness’ protégées, from legal jeopardy for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules. Mr Green’s recent return to the Cabinet is plain sailing.
What Boris Johnson did wrong, from a cynical political perspective, was not to solicit Jamaica’s help in crafting his lockdown rules.
From the standpoint of good governance, though, the greater failure is Jamaica’s. Our regulations established one set of obligations for ordinary folk, but fashioned a giant loophole for politicians and others, through which Mr Green and his friends escaped.
The parallel between Jamaica and Britain on the sense of entitlement among politicians, and their disinterest in playing by the rules, was on display over their responses to COVID-19 lockdown regulations.
During 2020, as the coronavirus raged in the United Kingdom, infecting nearly 2.3 million people and killing over 70,000, the Tory government imposed rigid lockdown rules. People were forced to stay indoors for weeks; movement was limited; physical-distancing requirements were robust. Often, victims of the disease died alone and lonely, unable to be visited by loved ones.
DID NOT FOLLOW THE RULES
The problem was that Mr Johnson’s ministers, and his inner-circle, often did not follow the rules. For instance, in April 2020, the prime minister’s then key adviser, Dominic Cummings, was twice seen visiting his family in Durham, northeast England, at a time when such travel was banned. The first trip coincided with a period when Mr Cummings should have been self-isolating because of possible infection with COVID-19. He had a hand in writing the rules.
Then last June, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was caught on camera smooching on the office compound with an aide, Gina Coladangelo. He resigned. He had breached the National Health Service’s physical-distancing rules.
Late last year, news, including photographs, began to seep out about wine-swigging parties during the lockdown at Downing Street garden, including at least one attended by the prime minister.
In December, one of Mr Johnson’s advisers, Allegra Stratton, resigned, having been caught in a video joking about a party and how to brief the press on the issue. Mr Johnson at the time dissembled, claiming that it was a work event (staff meeting on the grounds) and half-apologised for the affair. He did not know he was at a party.
Britons who had endured the lockdowns felt that everyone had not been playing by the same rules. Mostly, they have not taken Mr Johnson at his word, especially in the face of information that ‘Partygate’ was more widespread than thought.
In the face of political pressure, including calls for him to step aside, Mr Johnson appointed a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, to probe the matter. In the meantime, the Metropolitan Police opened their own criminal investigation.
This week, Ms Gray issued only a partial report, because of the Scotland Yard investigation. She found that there were 16 events (the previous public count was a dozen) between May 2020 and April 2021, and said the behaviour at the sessions was “difficult to justify” when people had been forced to “accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives”. There was also, she concluded, “failures of leadership and judgement” by some elements at No. 10 and in the Cabinet Office.
A SIMILAR SCENARIO
Though not directly with respect to the parallel offices, many of Ms Gray’s observations would fit with respect to the offence in which Mr Green and his friends were caught – the differences in the legal situations, notwithstanding.
Last September, on one of the days on which Jamaicans were under full lockdown, Mr Green, the then agriculture minister; one of his aides, Gabriel Hylton; a governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) municipal councillor, Andrew Bellamy; and another colleague, Dave Powell, among others, were caught in a video feting at a hotel. They were celebrating Ms Hylton’s birthday.
Mr Green promptly resigned from the Cabinet, issuing a seemingly heartfelt apology. Mr Bellamy resigned from committees of the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation, as well as from the boards of government bodies. Ms Hylton did likewise.
This week, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was no basis for charging Mr Green and friends for breaching regulations under the Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA). As a parliamentarian, Mr Green was exempt from the restrictions of the regulation. So, too, were Mr Bellamy, as a municipal councillor, and Mr Powell, an employee of the state-owned waste management company. Earlier versions of the regulations would have allowed movement only for activities related to their work.
With respect to Ms Hylton, the DPP said there was nothing in the case file to determine when she arrived or departed the hotel; meaning, the police did not say whether it was during the period of the curfew. She might have been staying there all along. So there was no basis to prefer charges. That information should have been easy to find out. The police only had to ask Ms Hylton or check the hotel’s database. Did they want to know?
It will now be interesting to see how the police act on the DPP’s advice, that it is possible to charge the hotel for breaching the rules by having more than the allowable number of people (who were not wearing masks) congregating in the area of the celebration, and for having tables set with the kind of cutlery that were not allowed at the time.
Cynics may well ask, too, what inspired the writing of the regulations to create those massive loopholes that politicians and connected persons found so useful.