The stories about Downing Street happenings that never happened are becoming increasingly surreal
First published on Fri 10 Dec 2021 06.21 EST
Last Christmas was probably the worst my wife and I had spent together in all the years we have been together. We had long since accepted there was no chance of our daughter coming over from the US but the final straw was when the Covid guidelines were changed and we were unable even to see our son and his girlfriend for the day. So we glumly ate a small chicken and watched TV before sneaking off to bed round about 9pm. Now it’s looking as if we were mugs for sticking to the rules as those inside No 10 were ignoring them by holding a series of after-work parties. So far the government has not tried to deny that these gatherings took place – other than to say whatever happened was not a party – and its lines of defence have become increasingly ropey. First we have had Boris Johnson saying no one cared what happened a year ago and that an investigation wasn’t in the public interest. This was a line pursued by Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, on the Marr programme when he said the police didn’t bother to investigate crimes that had happened in the past – news for watchers of Silent Witness and Unforgotten. Though possibly Raab is under the impression the only crimes worth solving are those that have yet to be committed. Then on today’s media round, we had Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, saying he had been assured that even if a party had taken place – which he couldn’t confirm as he hadn’t been there – it definitely took place within the guidelines because the music had been very quiet and someone had opened the windows. Or something. Despite the fact that any gatherings were banned. No 10 just doesn’t seem to get how angry everyone is about this. Nor how many will think twice about breaking the rules if they are changed again before Xmas.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, my powers of concentration for reading have fallen off a cliff since the first lockdown. Before the pandemic I could easily manage one book a week, but now I can barely manage one every month or so. And the only books I seem to be able to read are nonfiction. The only fiction I have read since March 2020 has been a not very thrilling Scandi-noir thriller whose title I can’t even remember. It’s quite possible it was a great book and the problem was me. Just recently I have been forcing myself to make more time for reading, mostly about the coronavirus. Two books I have particularly enjoyed are Michael Lewis’s The Premonition – the story of the US scientists who tried to get the state to take the pandemic seriously – and Hilary Cooper and Simon Szreter’s After the Virus, an historical analysis, which begins with the introduction of the first poor laws in 1601 that enabled Britain to handle plagues, crop failures and recessions better than anywhere else in Europe for 200 years, moves on through the individualism of the 19th and early 20th century, the re-emergence of the welfare state post-second world war and the subsequent slide into neoliberalism, and looks at why the UK was initially the worst hit country in Europe. Their call for a return to a greater influence of the state is heartfelt. But I think it’s time to give myself a break from Covid so this Christmas, I am determined to branch out. I’m normally a sucker for political diaries, but I rate my chances of getting through the 1,000 pages-plus of the full Henry ‘“Chips” Channon diaries as nil. So it will have to be Jane Ridley’s biography of George V and the new, posthumously published, John le Carré. What better novel with which to dip my toes back into fiction?
Durham University has got itself into an entirely predictable mess after Prof Tim Luckhurst, the principal of one of its colleges, failed to tell students he had invited Rod Liddle to give the after-dinner speech before getting them to fork out £10 each for the privilege of attending the Christmas gala. Needless to say Liddle raced through his favourite topics of sex workers, trans rights and institutional racism and got exactly the response he had been hoping for. Some students walked out, some heckled and some refused to applaud, while Luckhurst yelled out, calling them pathetic and woke for being unwilling to tolerate views that did not agree with their own. Luckhurst has since been asked to apologise for his actions and it’s not yet clear if the university will take any further sanctions against him. My sympathies are with the students. After all, I’d have been a bit pissed off to discover Liddle was the guest speaker after forking out for the ticket. And it wasn’t as if the college was offering everyone the chance to get their money back when they found out. It’s not that I’m against students having their views challenged, it’s just that you would have hoped the college principal could have found someone with more academic credibility to do so. Liddle is at heart just a provocateur: all he wants is a reaction and he got just the one he wanted. Maybe future audiences could play it a little cannier. Either by sitting out the entire speech in silence or, better still, by carrying on talking while he is speaking. Liddle would hate that.
The Downing Street parties-that-never-happened story has become increasingly surreal. Following the leak of footage from the Downing Street “Lying Room” – the £2.6m briefing room used by No 10 to practise lying to the country – and the subsequent resignation of Allegra Stratton for joking about breaking the Covid guidelines, Johnson has continued to insist the parties, reports of which are increasing faster than the Omicron variant, never took place. Despite this, Johnson has instructed Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to investigate the parties for which he claims to have been given cast-iron assurances that they never took place. Let’s hope Case wasn’t the person who gave the prime minister those assurances. And if the cabinet secretary finds it hard to distinguish between people who were too pissed to know if they were there or not and those who merely imagined the whole thing, he could do worse than interview Dilyn the Dog, on the off-chance he was one of the canine superbrains identified by academics at Dalhousie University in Canada that can identify 215 words. Case could take Dilyn around various rooms in Downing Street to see if he reacts to “Who’s taken my Secret Santa?” and “Don’t chuck wine over the new wallpaper”. There again, Dilyn could be a Doggy Dunce, like my own Herbert Hound who can only identify 15 words.
The chaos in Westminster continues with Johnson now reported to have misled Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, about when he discovered Lord Brownlow – we all need a man like the deep-pocketed Brownlow in our lives – was paying for the expensive refurb of his Downing Street flat. There is surprise from some quarters that Johnson has been found out to be lying again, but lying is what sociopathic narcissists do. The real surprise would be for Johnson to be caught out telling the truth. He had intended this week to be “crime week”, in which he reset the dial after some bumpy headlines with some popular law and order announcements to please the rank and file of the Tory party. All he’s done is given the police more potential crimes to investigate. As for me, even though I’ve yet to buy half my presents, Christmas can’t come a moment too soon. This year, it’s all about having the family all together for the first time in two and a half years. Fingers crossed. Next Saturday, our daughter Anna and her husband are due to arrive from the US to be with us for nearly three weeks, and in the following week our son and his girlfriend will also be coming to stay, even though my wife has converted his bedroom into her pottery studio. So I could do without the government having to rapidly change the Covid regulations – is there anything dafter than being encouraged to work from home while also being urged to go out and get trashed with your friends at an office party? – just to distract from more wrongdoing. Is that too much to ask? I’m just keeping my head down and hoping to avoid the Omicron variant. So a happy and safe Xmas to everyone, thank you for the support so many of you gave me when I was severely depressed earlier in the year and see you on the other side in 2022.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Digested week, digested: Crime week