Orcadian Column, 27 January 2022

Another week and news of another Downing Street party. This time, it was a ‘surprise’ birthday party for the Prime Minister in June 2020, though in fairness most parties seem to come as a surprise to Boris Johnson. It is alleged that Mr Johnson’s interior designer, Lulu Lytle also attended this illicit gathering, providing a neat crossover between the ‘partygate’ and wallpapergate’ scandals.

With the Metropolitan Police confirming, somewhat belatedly, that they are now carrying out investigations in the allegations at long last, Sue Gray must wonder if she’ll ever get the chance to complete her enquiries and report. Although, as the Prime Minister has admitted to being at the infamous party on 20 May 2020, which he previously insisted hadn’t happened and wasn’t even a party and to which he would certainly not have gone if only someone had warned him that it didn’t comply with the lockdown rules he himself had set, we have surely been treated to the mother of all ‘spoiler alerts’ in advance of Sue Gray’s report.

All of which leaves the Prime Minister’s position wholly untenable. The defence offered by his supporters sounds ever more desperate, illogical and frankly laughable. In response, a YouGov poll last week showed that 73% of people believe Boris Johnson is doing ‘a bad job’, suggesting the public has made up its mind, even if Tory MPs have not.

The options for Boris Johnson at this stage are either a long lingering political death, or for his colleagues to take decisive action in the interests of the country, the battered reputation of the office of Prime Minister and, should further reason be required, their own electoral prospects. That said, Mr Johnson appears intent on clinging to power, prompting one commentator to liken the situation to watching a wildlife film in which a snake swallows a live chicken, while stopping periodically to draw out the agony.

Less colourful, mercifully, tends to be the work of statisticians, although it is an area not without controversy, as the old adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ attests. A timely reminder of this was provided at First Minister’s Questions last week, when Nicola Sturgeon boldly cited official figures to claim Covid rates in Scotland are “20% lower than in England”. This is highly misleading, given that the Office for National Statistics suggest rates are 1 in 20 both north and south of the border.

And this is not an isolated incident. An earlier claim by Ms Sturgeon that Covid rates were ‘five times lower’ in Scotland than England, prompted the Office of Statistics Regulation to step in, saying “the sources used to underpin this claim have been difficult to identify”. More recently, the Deputy First Minister incurred a similar rebuke from OSR after being caught using pre-Christmas Covid rates to assert the effectiveness of post-Christmas restrictions.

In the midst of a pandemic, of course, with decisions being taken at pace, under pressure and in the context of rapidly changing circumstances, mistakes are made and usually quickly corrected. However, this is different and points to the use of statistics less as public information and more as public relations.

The First Minister has consistently promised to base decisions on the data, but this becomes less reassuring if that data is seen to be manipulated to make a political argument about ‘Scotland versus England’ or even ‘SNP versus Tories’. Such a concern takes on added significance with John Swinney’s confirmation this week that work is already underway to prepare for another independence referendum next year, despite an ongoing pandemic and mounting evidence of the sheer scale of what needs done to recover our economy and hard-pressed public services.

In that context, for all the outrage she has expressed about Boris Johnson’s behaviour, Nicola Sturgeon makes little effort to disguise her desire to see him remain in place, doing her work for her. It’s just another reason to hope that the next Downing Street party we hear about is Boris Johnson’s leaving do. It’s a party that most people around the country would cheerfully advise him to attend and to take a suitcase with him.

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