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Editorial: Johnson lied while thousands died – but how can Labour make him pay?

PHOTOGRAPHS prove Boris Johnson was quaffing wine at a Downing Street party on a date (November 13 2020) that he specifically denied to MPs any party took place.

The Prime Minister’s credibility is shot to pieces — but then, it already was. Labour frontbenchers and some Tory backbenchers may express outrage at him for lying to Parliament: their problem is that this no longer shocks. 

Ministers have now frequently been caught misleading Parliament on everything from universal credit to refugee pushbacks; whether they admit it or not, they do not face consequences. 

More broadly Westminster’s reputation is in the gutter, with 56 MPs, or almost one in 10, facing investigation for sexual misconduct, revelations that follow years in which they have forfeited the public’s trust whether by the blatant corruption of the expenses scandal or the anti-democratic manoeuvrings by which they repeatedly sought to override the public’s vote to leave the European Union. 

The politics of these issues is not the point: it is that the entire institution is regarded as both sleazy and untrustworthy.

MPs who lament this have only themselves to blame, including in Labour, where the biggest wave of popular enthusiasm for politics in decades — the flocking of hundreds of thousands to the party under Jeremy Corbyn — was met with indignation and contempt.

That does not mean stark evidence of the Prime Minister lying is irrelevant. Public anger over “partygate” is very real, because the sacrifices ordinary people made for the safety of their communities through successive lockdowns were enormous and often painful, particularly when restrictions meant not being able to say goodbye to loved ones as Britain paid the price of the Tories’ disastrous mishandling of the pandemic through one of the highest death tolls anywhere on Earth.

It does mean that using partygate to land blows on the government and, most importantly, force policy concessions from it to help tackle the cost-of-living crisis means boxing clever. 

Keir Starmer’s long lectures on the need for integrity in politics fall flat because his own lack of integrity is nearly as obvious as the Prime Minister’s. 

The media might ignore his betrayal of the “10 pledges” he made to secure election as Labour leader, which promised broad continuity with the economic policies of Corbyn’s Labour including on issues of direct relevance to the current crisis such as public ownership of energy. 

In stark contrast to their treatment of his predecessor, they show no interest in battles inside the Labour Party, membership purges or the resignation of entire constituency party executives; they will not hound him over the continued delays to publication of the Forde report into evidence that the 2017 election campaign was sabotaged from within.

But that doesn’t mean the public are incapable of seeing that this is a politician raised to prominence by Corbyn who now acts as if Labour’s recent history, in which he loomed large, is one of shame and borderline treason.

Labour will only get a hearing when it is the advocate of a clear political alternative to the status quo, one reason this month’s local elections saw the party do so much better in Wales, where it continues to promote public ownership and redistribution of wealth, than in England where outside London its support actually declined despite the endless succession of scandals at No 10.

Hammering Johnson over partygate on the narrow issue of integrity isn’t cutting through. The labour movement should highlight the fact that Johnson lied while thousands died to expose the government’s appalling record throughout the Covid crisis and the need for far-reaching reforms to address the injustices it exposed.

And it should hit the government when it is down to force measures to tackle rising living costs — beginning with Labour’s proposed windfall tax on energy profits.

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