The wickedest nickname for the young wife of the British Prime Minister, Carrie Johnson – nee Symonds – is Carrie Antoinette. Wicked because it works. Marie Antionette, the Queen who died on the Parisian scaffold in 1793 was a figure of hate to the revolution; she was characterised, perhaps unfairly, as a shallow, pleasure seeking sybarite. A figure only interested in her giggling favorites, but with a deeply harmful impact on her husband, King Louis XVI. This in part led to the downfall of the centuries old political system, the Ancien Regiéme. In turn followed the Terror, the creation of gangs of murderous bureacrats, a collapse in civil liberties and freedeoms, constant war with her neighbours, ideologically inspired imprisonment and slaugter of over 17000 political and social outcasts.
Most infamously she was supposed to have responded to the hungry mob, “let them eat cake”, as she and her coterie partied away. (of course revisionists would have us believe she was merely talking about brioche and that she meant well – but the myth is more important than mere historical reality – as it is today).
The population were furious. For years they had suffered deprivation, high taxes, appalling social and health outcomes and had started taking to the streets. Let them eat cake.
Today we have the sight of a Prime Minister tottering in his tower. There is a very public investigation into his activities – the police have given evidence. Increasingly allies desert him, friends walk on by, shuffling along the curbs of Whitehall, deep in conversation, ears blocked with phone pods, oblivious to the man in the window, who stands there, not waving, but drowning.
A man that led the Conservative Party to victory, a huge victory a mere 24 months ago is looking down the barrels of a career turned to ashes.
Astonishingly, the final straw may well be a cake.
On the 19th June last year, on his 56th birthday, he got home after visiting a school and Carrie had organised an impromptu party, there was cake. There were 30 staff members, there was one of her hangers on, (an interior decorator named Lulu – who charges $150 dollars a yard for wallpaper and is responsible for a Downing street makeover that has already got the Johnsons into significant trouble over egregious spending.. We are told he only spent 10 minutes in the room, they sang Happy Birthday and he left.
So what? Who frankly cares about such irrelevant tattle? The country is struggling with an energy crisis, we might just be about to engage in war in support of Ukraine against Putin’s Russia. We are still not out of the pandemic. A Minister just resigned over a massive multi billion dollar business support scheme that is utterly riddled with fraud. Yet the PM might be brought down by some cheap supermarket wine, a couple of minor drinks dos in his garden and a novelty birthday cake?
Who cares? The problem for the Prime Minister is that we all do. We all know the cost of soft furnishings and wallpaper. We all know what a piss-up looks like. These things are comprehensible to everybody. Multi-billion financial shenanigans, the balance of payments, an economic meltdown, war thousands of miles away – these things are beyond our comprehension, they loom small in our minds. However, yes, you and I know the cost of a cheap bottle of Chardonnay from the corner shop.
So these scandals are in human form, they relate to our own lives, our own weaknesses, our own day-to-day foibles.
The charge sheet is as simple as it is ludicrous. Slowly, like some exquisite torture, details are dripped out. There was a party at No 10, there was another one in the garden. (That has been described as a work meeting – England has a new metaphor) he knew about these events, he lied to parliament about knowing about these events and so on. And now there is cake.
This all matters because at the time he, and his government were enacting laws that meant that the rest of us were severely restricted in what we were allowed to do, on pain of criminal charges, fines and imprisonment. Loved ones died alone. Births, marriages, yes birthdays, and deaths went uncelebrated, unremembered. Businesses withered and died, lives were stunted, hopes and ambitions dried untended.
It now feels that these rules were not to do with health – after all if they were the Tory team at the PM’s house would have forgone such jollities in fear for their own health, but they were put in place to scare the population into submission.
Boris Johnson was never elected because people believed that he stuck to the rules. We all knew that as a student he threatened to have a journalist beaten up. We know that he has a ball team of children, cast around the country, recognised, unrecognised like a 18th Century aristo. We knew that he was good in the way we feel, but poor in detail. We elected him mainly because he was not some dull gradgrinding technocrat. He, despite his privileged upbringing, was, we thought, one of us against the machine.
As a nation we forgive much in our leaders. We forgive weakness, we forgive foolishness, we forgive error, we even forgive bad behaviour – indeed by electing Boris Johnsonm we not only forgive these things, we show we can even rather admire them.
But we won’t forgive hypocrisy. Something changed when he married Ms Antoinette. Though he loved the popularity his cavalier approach to life had created, now it seems that that is all he wants. Popularity. His social circle has just become two decades younger. He now follows fashion and whatever the headlines tell him is popular. That is a way of political folly.
Fashions change fast and what was lauded is now held in contempt. This is as true of a bubble politician as it is of the latest boy band.
Instead of defending our dinner plates as he once did. He started lecturing us on what we eat. He has joined the international great and the good in thrall to the Swedish schoolgirl. Demanding, like the World Economic Forum, and alongside Biden, that we Build Back Better. That we legislate to promote and enforce devastating Net Zero green politics, because he will never suffer the economic hit the policies demand. Today he contemplates a Chinese style digital ID card to protect us from a virus whose impact is ever diminishing. In the past he was clear,
“I want to make it clear that I will in no circumstances carry one and even were I compelled to do so, I would take it out and destroy it on the spot were I ever asked to produce it.“ He even went as far as to threaten to eat it. But he was right on one thing. ‘It always suits governments so to scarify the population.’
The problem is that when love is tarnished, when people see through the facade, to the little man behind, fear falls away to be replaced with anger. Anger directed outwards (we do hate being shown that our own delusions are just that, blame must be apportioned – but towards another).
Time is up for the great carouser, though the incidents themselves are comical, they speak far more loudly as to character than great policy announcements.
As Marie Antionette stepped onto the cold October scaffold her last recorded words were, “Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose”.
No, maybe not, but an apology right now just won’t do it.