Partygate doesn’t mean that we’ve seen the end of the populist politics that underpinned and flowed from Brexit, still less of Brexit itself. It may not even mean the end of Johnson, whose fate remains precariously in the balance. Partygate matters because it exposes the risks and fragilities of populism.


First published: January 2022.


As briefly suggested in last week’s piece, there are numerous, if indirect, connections between the still unfolding ‘partygate’ scandals and Brexit. At the most basic level, the very existence of the present government is down to Brexit, its central manifesto message was ‘getting Brexit done’, its composition is based on the central test of Brexit loyalty, and its advisers, from Dominic Cummings downwards, initially came from the old Vote Leave campaign team.

That team, including Cummings, has of course now been mainly expunged from Downing Street, but one aspect of the scandals now engulfing Boris Johnson is that they derive from that rift. Indeed Katy Balls, Deputy Political Editor of the Spectator – and therefore presumably well-connected to the players – suggests that the “pivotal moment” for these scandals was Johnson’s decision in November 2020 to cut ties with his Vote Leave advisers.

This led Cummings to embark on a “revenge mission” which Balls suggests included a series of damaging leaks. Certainly Cummings’ public statements have significantly contributed to the mess that Johnson is now in. So for all that there’s a certain piquancy in seeing Johnson tormented by this “extraordinary vendetta”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg squeakily calls it, it is a highly unedifying spectacle since it seems motivated by egotism and bitterness rather than principle or the public good.

Thus the present crisis can be read as part of the unwinding of the ramshackle coalition that fought for, and obtained, Brexit, with another example being the now widely expressed dissatisfaction of Thatcherite Tories with Johnson’s Brexit. However, its deeper roots lie in the incoherence of the populist politics that delivered Brexit, and the way the subsequent Covid pandemic has exposed that incoherence far more clearly than Brexit itself.

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The paradox of populism

At the core of this is the central paradox of populism. Brexit was presented as the triumph of ‘the people’ over ‘the elite’; the “victory … for ordinary, decent people who’ve taken on the establishment and won”, as Nigel Farage put it the day after the referendum. In the years since then all the conflicts it has given rise to have been explicitly cast in those terms (hence, ‘will of the people’, ‘enemies of the people’, and the equation of remainers with the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’). It’s also implicit whenever there are reports of Brexit causing prices of imported foods to rise or foreign travel to be more difficult, which are always met with sneers implying that ‘ordinary, decent people’ have no experience of such fripperies.

Yet this was always a precarious construct, given that the country was and is more or less evenly split – making ‘the people’ an unconvincingly small proportion and ‘the elite’ a preposterously large one – and the self-evidently elite nature of its leaders. For the idea that the largely male, public school and/or Oxford educated Brexit leaders – a category that takes in Johnson, Gove, Farage, Cummings, Carswell, Lawson, Rees-Mogg, Hannan, Redwood and many more – are anything other than a privileged elite is plainly ludicrous. It is a fiction which is constantly vulnerable to obvious inconsistencies, but although they are often pointed out (Rees-Mogg’s investment fund company, Lawson’s French Chateau, Redwood’s advice to investors etc.) this has no 'cut through' with their supporters.

Why? I’m sure it is not that those supporters fail to spot the elite privilege of their leaders. It is that this isn’t the kind of privilege to which they object. Such figures – Johnson most obviously, Farage certainly, even Rees-Mogg surprisingly – are seen as being, despite that privilege, still in some way ‘ordinary’ and, perhaps more important, as ‘authentic’. More than anything, they may be privileged but they are not what their supporters mean by ‘the elite’ which, instead, is associated with the supposedly finger-wagging, won’t let us say what really think, prissy, moralistic, do-gooders. The Human Rights Brigade. The PC Brigade. The girly swots. The experts. The bleeding-heart liberals. More recently, the Woke police.

It’s a shadowy and amorphous group which, together, constitutes a ‘them’ to which the ‘us’ – ordinary people and our perhaps not ordinary in the ordinary sense but still authentic leaders – are opposed. For years we suffered as the ‘silent majority’, but with Brexit we found our voice. Within this is another, and crucial, dividing line. As brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Coe’s ‘Brexit novel’, Middle England, the elite in this meaning are ‘constantly telling us what to do and say’. They are interfering. They are authoritarian. They force us to be other than ourselves, and so to be humiliatingly inauthentic. They make us follow their rules, whereas Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg are themselves and let us be ourselves.

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Taking back control

In this cultural universe, ‘taking back control’ was a doubly potent slogan. It was about freedom from EU control, but also freedom from the control of them – who, not coincidentally, were opposed to Brexit – freedom to ‘talk about immigration’, freedom to celebrate Christmas not ‘Winterval’, freedom to fly the St George Flag and the Union Jack without being sneered at. In this last way it was, of course, partly about nationalism – about ‘us’ as a nation – but also about internal divisions – about ‘us’ versus ‘them’, those who for so long had ruled over us but were now exposed as traitors and saboteurs, as anti-British Elite Remainers.

So Brexit provided an umbrella that could link all sorts of disparate ideologies and resentments, the spines of which were ‘freedom from the rules’. Almost all the high-profile fights of the post-referendum period were framed by this. These ranged from the Miller case on Parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 to the row over Bercow’s “bombshell” ruling that Parliament couldn’t vote twice on the same motion (Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement), through to the court cases over prorogation. They were all battles over whether ‘the rules’ (laws, conventions) had to be followed or whether ‘the will of the people’ trumped such niceties.

It also informed the government’s brazenly announced intention to break international law over the Internal Market Bill and the decision arguably to actually do so by unilaterally flouting the Northern Ireland Protocol. It lay behind Johnson’s refusal to accept that Priti Patel had breached the Ministerial Code. And it explains the attempt to rip up the rules governing MPs’ conduct in order to get arch-Brexiter Owen Paterson off the hook, the failure of which now looks increasingly like the watershed moment in Johnson’s premiership.

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Anti-ruleism

At least until the Paterson scandal, Johnson was an ideal frontman for all this because of his own disdain for rules in any form. This doesn’t derive from any coherent philosophy but seems simply to be a mix of psychological disposition and sociological entitlement. On the one hand, he is lazy, irresponsible, and financially and morally incontinent. On the other, he grew up in and inhabits a privileged milieu where ‘rules are for the little people’. So, for example, this week it was reported that during a period of isolation due to exposure to Covid, despite being a grown adult:

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“We had to create a ‘cat run’ for him to get from the flat to his office so that he wouldn’t come into contact with people. The idea was we could talk to him through the open door. But he kept on coming out so we put two chairs across the door like some kind of puppy gate. There was a pattern throughout. He just simply didn’t think about following the rules. They were not for him.”

This almost instinctive disdain for rules is very different to, but for a while gelled with, the ‘anti-ruleism’ of Cummings (which is also very different to the libertarianism of some Brexiters). Despite some of the more breathless commentary, such as David Runciman’s recent portrait of him, Cummings’ views of politics and policy are not especially unusual (though the tenacity with which he pursues them may well be).

Ironically, given his, often accurate, criticism of business schools, they closely resemble those of big-league MBA students in the 1990s and 2000s. Both share the ‘work round the clock, win at all costs, smartest guys in the room’ machismo. They’re also similar in the mix of adulation for this or that business leader, Silicon Valley ‘disruptor’ schtick, and geek-macho enthrallment to science and data, the confluence of which then informs various ideas about the management and organization of big projects, often discussed on Cummings’ blog.

Whilst having some interesting insights in them, these discussions are like jelly in being a sprawling mish-mash of ideas without much in the way of disciplined thinking. At all events, the key point here is that, to the extent they have an over-arching theme, they sit within a well-worn groove of anti-bureaucratic analysis of organizations. Since the core of bureaucracy is rational-legal authority, these ideas are associated with a specific hostility to the Civil Service and to what Cummings and others call ‘the Blob’, and often slide into impatience with, even disdain for, the rule of law.

In this way, the supposedly anti-establishment project of Brexit morphed into one directed at the machinery of government when Johnson and Cummings got to Downing Street. Yet, just as the idea of Brexit as anti-establishment became an absurdity once Brexiters won and became the Establishment, so too was it an in-built paradox to rule based upon an approach to politics defined by rule-breaking.

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Enter coronavirus

That paradox became glaring when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and Johnson was suddenly confronted by a situation which required the imposition of draconian rules and restrictions on everyday life that were unprecedented in peacetime. Small wonder that he did so belatedly, reluctantly, and with a nod and a wink that the rules were there to be broken.

But here the populism that had delivered Brexit took an unexpected turn. Because what was revealed were two diametrically different responses to the Covid rules from Brexit supporters. Some of the most high-profile of them became, as discussed in a blog post – lockdown sceptics, insisting that no free-born Englishman could submit to the yoke of Whitehall tyranny, with ERG membership closely overlapping the new ‘Covid Recovery Group’. Few could doubt that, had he not been in power, Johnson would have been amongst them. Yet amongst plenty of rank-and-file leave voters an entirely different version of cultural identity held sway, and one they shared with plenty of remainers.

This was the traditional image of the British – and for once it was the British, not just the English – as a ‘naturally’ law-abiding people of orderly queues, fair play, pulling together for the common good, and ‘all in it together’. A people who, in fact, did not disdain but played by the rules. Indeed Johnson himself, with his constant invocations of Second World War unity, mobilised exactly this cultural theme, and it proved to be remarkably powerful. Most people have followed the rules, despite the hardship, and in some cases tragedy, that entailed.

This disjuncture first emerged with force in May 2020 when Cummings was exposed as a lockdown rule-breaker in the ‘Barnard Castle’ episode, yet defended by – oh how the wheel turns – Johnson. Finally, the incipient distinction between ‘the people’ and their anti-elitist yet self-evidently elite leadership was exposed in a way which had ‘cut through’ whereas, for example, the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment didn’t. The ‘freedom from rules’ umbrella of Brexit was blown inside-out by the wind of coronavirus.

Crucially, with the Cummings scandal came what Fintan O’Toole called “the unpardonable snigger of elite condescension”. It was that same sniggering which, come partygate, caused Allegra Stratton’s downfall as she rehearsed precisely the defence line of a party having been ‘a meeting’ which Johnson was subsequently to use in his ‘apology’ to parliament. And it was the same sniggering as Johnson’s when asked by a reporter about the most controversial of the parties. Suddenly, breaking the rules ceased to be funny, and ceased to be part of a popular insurrection against the Establishment, and became a potent symbol of elitist hypocrisy and contempt for ‘ordinary people’.

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Rules have their uses

Whereas the scandals over PPE procurement were defended on the grounds that ‘in an emergency’ the niceties of bureaucratic rules governing the award of contracts had to be abandoned, those over lockdown rule-breaking had a very different character. Attempts to run a somewhat similar defence – that the parties were an understandable response to pressure of work – founder on the fact that the same could have been said of NHS or other key workers.

So Johnson, like Cummings before him, has sought to save himself by an ironic invocation of rules and procedures. In Cummings’ case, he invoked some supposed exemptions in the detail of the regulations. In Johnson’s, he has tried to argue that the party he attended fell “technically” within the guidance, and that he “implicitly believed” he was following all the rules. Yet this cuts little ice considering the many cases where even unwitting rule-breakers had been prosecuted and fined.

In another irony, as it is very much in keeping with the traditional response of the political Establishment to scandals, he has also deployed the ruse of ‘initiating a full inquiry’, hiding desperately behind the much-despised Civil Service Blob in the shape of Sue Gray. Suddenly bureaucrats are not just back in fashion but the fount of wisdom and justice, for whose words we are constantly told we must wait before passing judgment; there are rules and processes that must be followed after all!

Indeed in all the many scandals that have afflicted his short premiership, it is notable that Johnson has invariably invoked procedural solutions or established customs to defend his rule-breaking, hence the seemingly endless inquiries of various types (equally notable is how often their findings have been anodyne or ignored). Even the prorogation of parliament was passed off as just a standard ritual until the Supreme Court put paid to that, something which still rankles with Brexiters and is believed to have led Johnson to want to seek revenge by ‘reforming’ its role.

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Partygate and Brexit

However, unlike the prorogation and many other post-referendum cases of rule-breaking, reaction to the partygate scandal doesn’t follow the Brexit fault line. As was also attempted in relation to Cummings, some, such as doltish MP Michael Fabricant, have tried to pass it off as the anger of the “London Remain classes” but it’s very plain that it transcends that divide. That matters, because it is perhaps the only time since 2016 that this has happened. It shows that both remainers and leavers can and do share some very significant common values. In fact, it is closer to the public outcry in 2009 over politicians' expenses, except for being aimed entirely at the Conservative Party (attempts to widen it to include Keir Starmer having so far failed).

It’s also of note that Operation Red Meat – the deployment of populist policy announcements to try to rebuild that coalition of support for Johnson – does not seek to work the Brexit divide, for example by making new threats to invoke Article 16. As I argued last week, that would not be likely to work as a distraction from his difficulties but would add to them. That’s because another part of Johnson’s defence is the endless claim that, whatever his partygate sins, he ‘got Brexit done’, something hard to reconcile with a fresh crisis over the attempt to re-write the Northern Ireland Protocol (of that, the only concrete news is that intense talks are continuing prior to Truss and Sefcovic meeting on Monday, but the respected commentator Mujtaba Rahman detects signs of progress, even if there are doubts of an early resolution).

Partygate obviously doesn’t mean that we’ve seen the end of the populist politics that underpinned and flowed from Brexit, still less of Brexit itself. It may not even mean the end of Johnson, whose fate remains precariously in the balance. If he does go, it will make a difference to the Brexit debate from then on, though. That is partly because so much of the leaving process remains ongoing, and his successor will affect how that is approached – albeit within a limited palette of options, some of which are even worse than Johnson’s and none of them hugely better.

Instead, partygate matters because it exposes the risks and fragilities of populism. A politics that mobilises ‘the people’ against ‘the Establishment’, and which posits rules as elitist meddling, can be an effective weapon for campaigning but is a double-edged one for governing. There is an implication in that for Brexit. As the damage charted by, for example, Yorkshire Bylines’ now 500 item-long Davis Downside Dossier, mounts, ‘the people’ may recall that it’s nothing like what they were promised in 2016. They may even conclude that so fraudulent a deception was not ‘playing by the rules’ to a far greater extent than Johnson’s Brexit Establishment lockdown parties, and react with a correspondingly greater wrath.

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— AUTHOR —

Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.


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