Monday, 6 December 2021

Maybe it will be the little things that get him


The response by the Metropolitan Police to the reports of parties at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown was clumsy at best. Saying that they do not routinely probe "retrospective breaches" of Covid rules was a pretty silly thing to say – as many others have pointed out, the nature of any crime investigation is that it is retrospective, because crime can only ever be investigated after it has occurred. It might be true that most prosecutions for breaches of Covid regulations have resulted from police action taken at the time of the breach rather than from a “retrospective” investigation, but it isn’t universally true, and there was nothing in the regulations themselves which suggested that people would only be prosecuted if they were caught red-handed. But whilst the words used were badly chosen, the basic point is one which many victims of car crime, burglary etc will be only too familiar: under-resourced police forces do indeed pick and choose which crimes they investigate and which they ignore.

The question which deserves more scrutiny than it gets is about how the police come to a decision about which crimes they should investigate and which do not deserve their time and attention. Whatever the answer to that should be, it most definitely should not resolve entirely around how long ago the offence was committed. Telling would-be offenders that they’ll get away with the offence if they can only keep it secret for long enough is a poor approach to law enforcement, and an even worse one to crime prevention. And in the specific case of Covid breaches, telling those who were fined for holding parties which were raided and broken up by the police that the difference between them and the offenders at Number 10 was that nobody reported the Downing Street parties at the time they were happening is not much of a justification for differential treatment before the law.

In the grand scheme of things, and all other things being equal, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable for an overstretched police force to say that it really doesn’t feel investigating the details of a party held twelve months ago is a sensible investment of officer time, despite the fact that during last year’s lockdowns, the Home Secretary, no less, was urging people to report their neighbours for holding parties. (Perhaps she should be reporting Rishi Sunak for failing to report his neighbour.) However, all other things aren’t equal. Any decision on whether or not to investigate is inevitably an intensely political one – whichever way the decision goes. Of course the opposition parties want to expose and punish the repeated and continuous lies and evasions at the heart of the current government, and a decision to investigate will inevitably be seen as supporting that. On the other hand, a decision to let the matter drop will, equally inevitably, be seen as allowing ‘them’ to get away with what ‘we’ would be punished for.

The government really does seem incapable of helping itself. A government with any sense of honour or shame would simply announce that after an internal investigation any of the organisers still employed at Downing Street had been disciplined and that nothing similar would ever happen again. Instead of which, a government which is incapable of ever admitting doing anything wrong ties itself up in knots by arguing that only a ‘formal’ party would have been against the rules. (I don’t even know what that means: does it mean white tie events, or events to which embossed invitations were issued? If that’s what the rules really meant, the police were surely wrongly applying them to events held by others.) The PM’s spokesperson has consistently both failed to deny that parties were held and argued that no rules were broken – two things which in no conceivable universe could both be true.

There is a sense in which whether a party was or was not held is small beer in the scale of things. To date the media have generally gone fairly easy on Johnson; he has learned that if he just ignores a bad story or doubles down on the lie, the media eventually get fed up of the story and move on. There would be a certain poetic justice if it turned out that it was something fairly small which eventually did for him. We should never forget that it was, eventually, tax evasion which placed Al Capone in prison.

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