Two weeks ago, the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid in the UK, dropped a bombshell. Pippa Crerar, the paper’s political editor, reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and staffers in his office held two parties in the run-up to Christmas last year, in apparent violation of the strict COVID rules in place in England at the time. Johnson denied that any rules had been broken, but a week later, ITV, a British broadcaster, obtained footage that showed Allegra Stratton, a former journalist (for ITV among others) who was Johnson’s top spokesperson at the time, joking about a party with “no social distancing” at a practice press briefing in the days after the party was said to have happened. Johnson had hired Stratton to front daily, White House-style briefings from an expensive new briefing room—a potentially revolutionary development in the way the British government communicates with the media—but the idea was scrapped before it got beyond the rehearsal stage, and Stratton moved into a new role as a spokesperson for the COP26 climate summit. The party-jokes clip would be the only time the British public would see Stratton at the briefing-room podium. The day after it aired, she resigned from her climate role in a tearful statement to news cameras assembled outside her home.
Crerar’s story and the Stratton video blew up into a major media scandal in the UK, in no small part because they nourished the much longer-term narrative that the country’s rulers see COVID restrictions as being for other people, not themselves. Last year, Crerar and Matthew Weaver, a reporter at the rival left-wing Guardian, broke the news that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s then-top aide, had driven his symptomatic wife hundreds of miles from their London home at the height of Britain’s first lockdown; this year, Matt Hancock, then the health minister, quit after The Sun, a right-wing tabloid, obtained and published security footage from inside his ministerial office that showed him in the throes (literally) of an extramarital affair, in violation of COVID rules. Since the parties scandal blew up, it’s been sustained by a drip of similarly embarrassing new stories, many of them broken by Crerar. Over the weekend, she published a photo showing Johnson hosting a Christmas trivia night in his office last year (the event was reportedly virtual, but not really); yesterday, she published a photo showing a different event, also last year, at the headquarters of Johnson’s Conservative Party. An official involved resigned before the story came out. “‘Hello, this is Pippa Crerar calling, I just wanted to ask you about…’ must be the most terrifying sound in all of British politics right now,” a former Labour Party politician tweeted yesterday. Another Twitter user likened her regular scoops to a Christmas advent calendar.
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Cummings—now out of government and a sworn enemy of Johnson, with the Substack newsletter and hyperactive Twitter feed to prove it—has thrown further fuel on the fire, accusing Johnson of lying about the parties, and claiming that some political journalists themselves attended them and are thus inclined to “bury this story.” If this is true—and there’s no proof that it is—they haven’t done a very good job. Newspapers from across the political spectrum have splashed the scandal in furious terms on their front pages. Last week, the right-wing Daily Mail accused Stratton of a “SICK JOKE.” After she quit, The Sun depicted Johnson as the Grinch under the headline “DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I CHRISTMAS DO.” The Daily Star, another tabloid, which doesn’t always cover political news, mocked him up as a character in the game Clue, and christened him “Captain Cock-up.”
Mixed in with the anger over the parties hypocrisy from last year was anger—especially in conservative media—over Johnson’s announcement, on the day Stratton quit, that he would seek to introduce tighter COVID rules this year amid fears about the spread of the Omicron variant. (The new rules include vaccine passports for big events and increased masking.) Many right-wing pundits and politicians—porous categories in the UK; see Johnson, Boris—strongly oppose new measures. This dynamic, as much as the parties scandal, has led outlets that once supported Johnson to start to turn on him, and his future as prime minister is now in greater doubt than at any time since he entered office in 2019, a state of peril that has piqued the interest of outlets in other countries, including the US. Perhaps most woundingly for Johnson, the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper where he worked for years as a reporter (of sorts) and columnist, ran a front-page headline asking whether he’s reached “the beginning of the end” of the road. Allister Heath, the editor of the paper’s Sunday edition, wrote inside that there is “an overpowering fin-de-regime stench emanating from Downing Street that can no longer be ignored.”
Even though the new restrictions amplified criticism of Johnson among erstwhile media allies, outlets across the political spectrum—from the Telegraph to the Financial Times—suggested that Johnson had announced them as a “dead cat”: a favored Johnsonian media strategy that involves contriving a shocking, even bad, story to move the news cycle on from a scandal. (“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table,” Johnson once explained: “Everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’”) At a press conference last week, Johnson denied such charges, insisting that the timing of the restrictions was a response to clear public-health concern about Omicron. “Imagine that this step were to have been delayed because of political events,” Johnson said. “What would people say then?” It’s clear, though, that he wanted to put the parties scandal behind him. On Saturday, the Mail reported that Johnson has privately described the BBC’s parties coverage as “shamefully frivolous, vengeful, and partisan,” telling friends that the broadcaster should instead be focusing on persuading viewers to get a COVID booster shot. On Sunday, hours after Crerar broke the trivia-night photo, Johnson announced a hugely ambitious expansion of Britain’s booster program in a pre-taped prime-time address—a rare format that is used, as in the US, to project gravitas and urgency, with the convenient side effect that journalists can’t ask questions.
Commentators including Stephen Bush, of the New Statesman, speculated that the address was itself a dead cat intended to keep the trivia night off Monday’s front pages. If it was, it worked: almost every major newspaper, including the Mirror, led with the booster expansion. (The Star instead splashed the important news of “VICIOUS JACKALS HEADING OUR WAY.”) As the day went on, stories about Johnson receded further down the news cycle as the Omicron situation grew more concerning, with Sajid Javid, the health minister, telling Parliament that while the number of confirmed Omicron cases in the UK remains low, health officials believe that they are actually increasing at a rate of hundreds of thousands of new cases per day. There’s still huge uncertainty around those figures and what might happen next, but Omicron is injecting an increasingly somber mood into media coverage, and positioning Britain near the center of a story of growing international concern. This morning, the UK edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter declared that, “for all the intrigue about Johnson’s standing, the reality is politics will likely be overtaken by Omicron news in the coming days.”
Or maybe not. The parties scandal and the Omicron story are substantively linked—the former risks sapping Johnson’s moral authority to impose further restrictions should those become necessary, especially at Christmas time, and could have longer-term ramifications for public-health policy should right-wing lawmakers use it as grist to force Johnson from office (though you’d be wise not to hold your breath on that one). More immediately, major British outlets, as with their US counterparts, are accustomed to letting political intrigue drive the news cycle more than public health, and there’s plenty more of it on the way. Coverage of a Parliamentary vote yesterday to authorize the new restrictions has been dominated by a huge rebellion among Johnson’s allies; an official investigation of last year’s parties is set to conclude imminently, and a special election tomorrow in a Parliamentary seat that should be safely Conservative is on a knife’s edge. Politico said this morning that the latter story is looking “more and more like a season finale with every passing day.” The COVID story, of course, will go on.
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TOP IMAGE: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights in London, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)