Schrödinger’s Christmas party could exceed Barnard Castle for harming Boris Johnson’s reputation

Watching the growing furore over the Schrödinger-like No. 10 party that both was and wasn’t, I’m strongly reminded of the public fury over Barnard Castle; but this has the potential to supersede it for reputational harm.

The reason this is dangerous for Johnson is that it is more relatable to the public than all the other failures, argues Ian Griggs
The reason this is dangerous for Johnson is that it is more relatable to the public than all the other failures, argues Ian Griggs

There are strong parallels between Dominic Cummings' jaunt to Durham, which came to light in May last year, and the alleged Downing Street party last December.

In both cases, the story was broken by a left-wing, arguably hostile, newspaper, but then followed up across the media as the pressure grew for answers.

In both cases, flat denials from the Downing Street comms team that any wrongdoing had taken place gave way to gradual admission that there was a case to answer.

Finally, in both cases, the Government woefully misunderstood public anger and dismissed the story as "Westminster bubble gossip", to its eventual cost.

The reputation gap

An industry professional once explained the ‘reputation gap’ to me. It is the difference between the public’s perceptions of a person, company or institution and a negative story about the same, and it serves as a useful barometer of the likely harm done in a given situation. In essence, it is about how far they have to fall in the public’s estimation.

For example, if the Pope was suddenly unmasked as a serial shoplifter, he might, bizarrely, suffer more reputational damage than a dictator who put soldiers on the streets to quell a peaceful demonstration.

One we expect. The other we do not.

But the reputation gap does not seem to fit the current row as readily. By any measure, the Government has failed to cover itself in glory since December 2019.

Multiple failures – from messaging to PPE – during the early stages of the pandemic have been disastrous. Accusations of cronyism and lucrative contracts for friends and donors have dogged it for more than a year. It signally failed to achieve the minimum that was needed at COP26.

Let’s face it: our expectations were low in the first place, so why does this 'party' have the potential to be so incendiary?

The reason is that, like the Barnard Castle incident, it is so very relatable in the minds of the public. PPE supply, cronyism, and COP26 seem out of reach to the ordinary voter – and beyond their control.

Last Christmas, like nearly everyone else, I could not invite my wider family to sit down with us for the traditional feast due to restrictions imposed at the last moment. I was also forced to cancel a family trip to see close friends just afterwards – something we had all been looking forward to.

My personal sacrifices last year are beyond trivial in the grand scheme of the pandemic. I only had to delay a reunion with the people I love. Others lost people they loved forever.

The point is that I clearly remember – and will always remember – a Christmas like no other. I remember what I was doing and what I might have been doing if restrictions had not been in place.

Everybody else remembers their personal story of sacrifice as well.

Boris Johnson began Prime Minister's Questions this week with an apology to the public. He said he was furious to see the clip of his former press secretary, Allegra Stratton, joking with Downing Street colleagues and that he shared the public’s anger.

Stratton quit her job as The Prime Minister's COP26 spokesperson this afternoon but hers is unlikely to be the last resignation resulting from this affair.

Earlier, during PMQs, Johnson also asserted that there was no party and that no rules were broken, while promising a full investigation.

But like Cummings before him, a week of denials by Johnson and his ministers that there was anything wrong with how those in Downing Street conducted themselves on 18 December last year has come back to haunt him and could yet be the end of him.

The Conservative Party knows when it has a winner on its hands, but it also acts with ruthless efficiency when a winner has outlived their usefulness.

Ian Griggs is associate editor at PRWeek

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