Week-in-Review: Covid sleaze is back and more politically potent than ever

On Tuesday night, former well being secretary Matt Hancock caught wind of troubling rumours {that a} vital story about him was brewing. The perturbed MP texted Isabel Oakeshott, the anti-lockdown journalist and unlikely co-author of his pandemic memoirs, asking her if she had “any clues” about what was occurring. He obtained no reply.

A little bit afterward, the right-wing Telegraph newspaper printed a brand new investigation: the ominously titled “Lockdown Information”. The reporting is the end result of the paper’s two-month-long trawl via 100,000 WhatsApp messages, furnished to them by Hancock’s latest bête noire: sure, Isabel Oakeshott. Debuting the investigation with a narrative on Hancock’s strategy to care houses, the plan now could be to drip-feed out exposés frequently, illuminating the secretive world contained in the Whitehall blob one front-page splash at a time. 

Extra recriminations adopted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; plainly, the investigation had acquired a portentous momentum. Civil servants, advisers and MPs alike have been rueing the day they ever exchanged telephone numbers with the previous well being secretary. 

Then on Friday, in an act of reports agenda synchronisation past the wildest desires of any Week-in-Overview author, the privileges committee printed its preliminary report into whether or not Boris Johnson lied to parliament about partygate. Recent from a coded intervention on Rishi Sunak’s Northern Eire Protocol deal, Johnson’s Covid misdeeds have been thrust as soon as once more into the headlines. 


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Maybe unsurprisingly, Johnson had gotten off comparatively scot-free from The Telegraph’s WhatsApp-based snooping. His solely point out got here after the publication of a sequence of mundane messages querying the distinction between chance expressed as a proportion and as a decimal. Whereas probably making the case for Sunak’s maths-until-18 coverage, the episode underlined that Johnson was not The Telegraph’s prime goal. 

After all, it’s value noting that The Telegraph‘s investigation, whereas undoubtedly arresting, is itself deeply partial. Their studying of Hancock’s tomey texts comes from a lens — a logical start line — of lockdown scepticism. Their intention was to color an image of out-of-their-depth politicians, jumped-up on energy, rewriting British social norms on the whim of a WhatsApp ping. When you’ve got 100,000 textual content messages word-for-word thrice longer than the King James Bible, there will likely be no scarcity of neat narratives to weave and embellish. 

In some senses, The Telegraph’s editorial line on lockdowns belies the true theme of the messages, later tackled comprehensively by the privileges committee report. 

Certainly, essentially the most politically potent revelation from The Telegraph’s investigation was the information that Hancock, in his capability as well being secretary, had organized for a testing package to be couriered to the family of fellow cupboard minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. The message detailed: “we’ve obtained a courier going to [the Rees-Mogg] household residence tonight, little one will take the check, and courier will take it straight to the lab. Ought to have end result tomorrow am”.

Placing apart private vanities, this, excess of any supposed reckoning for lockdown-minded Machiavellians, has the potential to stay within the public consciousness. With the Conservative occasion already almightily uncovered on Covid wrongdoing, the Rees-Mogg story turned the newest in a protracted line of tales on pandemic sleaze. That’s, in fact, till Friday.  

The suggestion that Boris Johnson could have misled parliament over partygate on 4 events is the largest improvement within the former PM’s political profession since his unceremonious departure from Downing Avenue. 

The report itself is damning. It means that breaches of coronavirus guidelines would have been “apparent” to the prime minister because the lead occupant of No. 10, citing particularly a gathering dated 27 November 2020 the place Johnson joked: “[This is] most likely essentially the most unsocially distanced gathering within the UK proper now”.

However essentially the most revealing particulars — choosing up on this week’s core theme — got here by the use of newly-disclosed WhatsApp messages from Downing Avenue employees. Messages exchanged in April 2021 confirmed that No 10 employees have been well-aware that some gatherings operated in breach of Covid guidelines. One unknown official cites a colleague’s issues “about leaks of PM having a piss-up and to be truthful I don’t assume it’s unwarranted”.

The political fallout, mirroring the “Lockdown Information” furore, was quick. Johnson was first to enter the fray, issuing a bullish assertion indicating that he had been “vindicated” by the findings. Curiously, nonetheless, Johnson additionally rubbished the committee’s methodology, pouring scorn on the truth that the committee had “relied on” the findings of Sue Grey, the previous Whitehall mandarin anticipated to quickly turn out to be Labour’s new chief of employees. 

“It’s surreal to find that the committee proposes to depend on proof culled and orchestrated by Sue Grey”, Johnson argued. 

Then got here a slew of denunciations from the previous PM’s allies, every pulling at this specific thread. Simon Clarke mentioned: “Earlier than the privileges committee can proceed and depend on Sue Grey’s proof, which will likely be pivotal, we want an pressing inquiry”. Mark Jenkinson, one other loyalist, questioned equally: “How can the work Keir Starmer’s high political adviser be used in opposition to Boris like this? This can’t presumably be a good course of”. 

However the political dramatics to 1 aspect, the brand new revelations in opposition to the previous PM, just like the “Lockdown Information”, level to the brand new political centrality of Covid sleaze. It is going to be sore information for Rishi Sunak. 

This was speculated to be the week the prime minister rebooted his administration as a delivery-focused different to earlier iterations of Conservative governance. The “Windsor Framework” introduced on Monday was all about proving the Conservative occasion may, in spite of everything, make pragmatic choices within the nationwide curiosity. Now, the equally glibly named “Lockdown information” could undermine that picture; and the Johnson revelations look set to dominate the headlines. Any fledgling momentum generated by the Framework could have already been scuppered by occasions far past the PM’s management.

With extra revelations, extra stories and extra recriminations certainly forthcoming, the “sleaze premium” utilized to the Conservative occasion’s polling exhibits no signal of dissipating. It highlights as soon as extra the political constraints on Sunak, as issues which turned so endemic throughout Johnson’s time in Downing Avenue proceed to thwart his occasion’s electoral prospects. Consideration now turns to the previous PM’s look earlier than the privilege committee on March 20 — all indicators point out the conflict will likely be blockbuster.