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Reynolds column: Heartbreak and dismay over 'parties'

In his latest column, the Stalybridge and Hyde MP talks about what he witnessed at Prime Minister's Questions and developments in the Downing Street parties saga this week.

My mail box this week has been dominated by one issue and one issue only - Boris Johnson and his half-baked apology for being caught red-handed partying during lockdown.

I have never felt an atmosphere at Prime Minister’s Questions quite like it as the Prime Minister appeared to apologise to the nation for how we feel, as opposed to for what he had done. His own Conservative MPs sat stony-faced behind him, presumably in deep embarrassment at the lack of emotional intelligence exhibited from a leader who set rules which had an enormous impact on others, with apparently little regard for following them himself.

Johnson’s script said ‘I take full responsibility’, but his red face said ‘I’m defiant and how dare you all try to hold me to account.’ 

It reminded me of Donald Trump at his most infantile and narcissistic - a toddler having a tantrum. Except his behaviour wasn’t mortifying a patient parent in the frozen veg aisle at Tesco (and we’ve all been there), it was bringing shame on his Parliamentarians, his Queen and his country. Just a month before, Johnson had told Parliament was not aware of any parties that had taken place. If this turns out to have been a deliberate attempt to mislead the House, that would be very serious indeed.

Further revelations of Downing Street’s antics then emerged, most notably Johnson’s staff sneaking wine into No 10 in a wheelie suitcase as the nation was in mourning on the eve of Prince Phillip’s funeral, which led to a hastened apology from his spokesperson to Her Majesty the Queen.

Johnson’s response was not to at last demonstrate the sincere humility the country longed to see, but to launch a curiously named attempt to save his bacon, ‘Operation Save Big Dog’. I’m as keen on animal rescue as the next person, but the overt plan to see junior heads roll to cling onto his own position feels both contemptible and desperate. This isn’t what a statesperson looks like.

Why has public reaction been so strong? The answer is clear: because the rest of us did our part, believing we were all in it together, in some cases at terrible personal cost. I have been struck by sheer volumes of emails, letters and messages from constituents. Some lost loved ones in lockdown and were forced to say goodbye via iPad. Some went through hours of difficult labours or sadly miscarriages alone, with their partners in the car park.

Some, heartbreakingly, lost friends by suicide for whom isolation came at the worst time. These things can never be undone, and the pain is still raw. I really have to question whether a Prime Minister who cannot empathise with that is up to the job.

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