Talking Points

Boris Johnson and elites' bizarre oblivion to their own pandemic indecency

British politics are different. While American politicians tend to hold onto their jobs until — and sometimes even after — they face charges for actual crimes, British officials are routinely forced out or resign for comparably minor lapses of behavior or judgment.

That's why U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Conservative, is in bigger trouble than an American president would be in his place. On Wednesday, he apologized in Parliament for attending a cocktail party at his Downing Street residence in May 2020, when Britons faced tight COVID-19 restrictions against socializing. Although the story has been circulating for weeks, Johnson tried to defer questions about the incident until an internal investigation is complete. His recent statement is an attempt at damage control as public opinion continues to turn against him.

Despite his mounting unpopularity, Johnson probably won't be ousted by his party, which includes no obvious successor. But his situation should be a warning to public figures around the world who still don't understand why so many people are so angry about lockdowns, school closures, mask requirements, and other public health mandates.

It's just not about the psychological, logistical, and economic costs — real as they are. Rather, many of us are enraged by the sense that there's one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else. Technical excuses, like Johnson's claim that he believed the party was a (permitted) work event rather than a (banned) social occasion, simply don't cut it. 

And it doesn't have to be this way. An older generation of leaders made a point of sharing the hardships of their people even when they could have avoided those burdens. The most damning indictment of Johnson's conduct isn't the rhetoric of Labour leader Keir Starmer, who's trying to use Johnson's lapses to revive the fortunes of his own demoralized party. It's photographs of Queen Elizabeth sitting masked and alone at the 2021 funeral of Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated the month of the party. It has been corrected. We regret the error.