The way cabinet ministers dealt with allegations of lockdown-breaching gatherings in Downing Street has “made the government look distinctly shifty,” former Prime Minister Sir John Major said on Thursday in a blistering speech.
“At No 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws,” Major said in a speech at London think tank The Institute for Government.
“Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible—making themselves look gullible or foolish,” he added.
“Collectively, this has made the government look distinctly shifty, which has consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity. No government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion.”
Major, a longstanding critic of Johnson, said such conduct reflects a wider decline in politicians’ standards in recent years.
“Trust in politics is at a low ebb, eroded by foolish behaviour, leaving a sense of unease about how our politics is being conducted. Too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional,” he said.
“When ministers respond to legitimate questions with pre-prepared soundbites, or half-truths, or misdirection, or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics dies a little more.
“Misleading replies to questions invite disillusion. Outright lies breed contempt.
Major went on to say “power must also speak truth to the people” if democracy is to be respected, but while the vast majority of elected politicians do not knowingly mislead, the behaviour of those who do is tarnishing the reputation of politics and of Parliament, leaving “nothing and no-one” to be trusted.
In a subsequent interview, the former prime minister, who also served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, said Thatcher and him would never have been allowed to “behave in the way the present prime minister has.”
“The Cabinet secretary would have been around straight away to tell her she couldn’t do it and so would Mr. [William] Whitelaw, Lord Carrington, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and many other senior and weighty member[s] of the cabinet.”
After it emerged he was at a “bring your own booze” garden party on May 20, 2020, Johnson apologised to MPs on Jan. 12, saying he was present for around 25 minutes to “thank groups of staff,” and he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
An internal investigation into 16 alleged gatherings, led by senior civil servant Sue Gray, found “failures of leadership and judgment” by parts of Johnson’s office and the Cabinet Office. Police are also investigating 13 alleged law-breaking gatherings at Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, six of which Johnson allegedly attended.
Following Major’s speech, Downing Street has declined to reject his allegation that Johnson and No 10 staff had broken lockdown laws.
“There’s a Met investigation underway on these events, I simply wouldn’t seek to comment,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
The spokesman also defended Johnson, saying the prime minister “initiated the investigation into these events.”
Visiting Brussels, Johnson also declined to comment on the matter, saying it’s wrong to comment until the police investigation is complete.