On May 23, 2020, three days after Boris Johnson had the highly relatable experience of leaving his office to attend what he “implicitly” believed to be a “work event” in the garden of 10 Downing Street — only to find 30 or so of his staff standing around drinking and chatting in the early evening sunshine in what, with hindsight, he now thinks could be construed by the British public as an explicitly “social event” — I, too, had an awkward moment in a garden. For the first time I can recall, I relieved myself in the hawthorn bush next to Mum’s old vegetable patch.
In my defense, I had little choice but to engage in al fresco micturition. Believe it or not, in England in May 2020, I would have committed a criminal offense had I dared to quickly pop into the house in which I grew up to use the loo before getting in my car to drive home. But never mind the law. I and a fair few other Brits were of the view that entering the house for a few moments would be tantamount to recklessly endangering the lives of my beloved, immunocompromised parents. COVID-19 cases had peaked in March, but we remained terrified.
Still, driving down almost empty roads to my parents’ house that day as I cranked up “Thunder Road,” I truly did feel as if those two lanes could take me anywhere. As the PM’s most senior official noted in his now-infamous email advising staffers to “bring your own booze” to the No. 10 garden, we had been enjoying unseasonably “lovely weather.” More important, it was the first time since mid-March that I’d traveled anywhere at all. On order of Her Majesty’s Government, I hadn’t been more than half a mile from my house in London since mid-March. Until a slight relaxing of the rules was announced by the PM on May 10, it was a criminal offense for office workers like me to leave our houses for anything other than food shopping, essential medical appointments, or outside exercise, which could last no longer than one hour. I had spent two months almost entirely confined to my house with my girlfriend and our two children under the age of 3.
Finally, we had been granted the opportunity to meet up with one other person outside as long as we maintained our distance. So here I was in my parent’s garden in leafy Surrey, enjoying a few slices of Mum’s tea cake for the first time since February.
As I attempted to do my best to apply the law to visiting my parents in the midst of a pandemic, many Brits were enduring the almost incomprehensible: watching on grainy Zoom footage as loved ones were buried or being informed by phone that a relative had died alone in a hospital ward. The majority of us who were spared such agonies felt (though it feels rather grandiose to say it now) our observance of the rules and regulations imposed on us might just go someway toward sparing others such miseries.
Judging by the multitude of social gatherings Johnson and his staff attended during various stages of lockdown, of which the garden party is merely one of the more egregious examples, our government was living on a different moral planet.
In a tightly worded statement delivered to an uncharacteristically silent House of Commons on Wednesday, the PM said he knew the “rage” that people across the country felt toward him. His speechwriter chose the right word.
Johnson was well known to us when he entered No. 10 in 2019. An ill-disciplined licentious rogue, he had never claimed the mantle of moral authority. His shamelessness seemingly convinced people he was hiding a lot less than your average manicured, blue-suited politico. For all his lies, there was something almost honest about his refusal to abide by the staid conventions of public life.
But the pressures of governing the country in a public-health crisis transformed the PM from lovable rogue to priggish rural parson, nightly delivering moral homilies from his lectern inside No. 10 on the crushing moral responsibility we bore for the health of our fellow countrymen. Ten days before his May “work gathering,” in a broadcast to the nation, the PM somberly intoned, “You must obey the rules on social distancing, and to enforce those rules, we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them.”
The rogue may have been forgiven his hypocrisy: Of course he would be in the small minority that bends the law. But it just feels a little too much to find the good vicar in the garden, glass in hand, when he had damned us all for dreaming of the same.