Boris Johnson has rejected as "demonstrably untrue" a claim by former Conservative prime minister John Major that lockdown breaches in Downing Street had shredded Britain's reputation abroad. Sir John said the prime minister and his staff had misled the public with unbelievable claims about the parties which are now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.
“At No 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws. Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible – making themselves look gullible or foolish. Collectively, this has made the government look distinctly shifty, which has consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity. No government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion,” he told the Institute for Government.
Sir John went on to say that the loss of trust in the government was damaging Britain’s reputation overseas and weakening its influence in the world.
“We should be wary. Even a casual glance at overseas comment shows our reputation is being shredded. A nation that loses friends and allies becomes a weaker nation,” he said.
Police inquiry The Metropolitan Police said this week they were contacting more than 50 people who are believed to have attended the parties in Downing Street during lockdown. Mr Johnson on Thursday refused to say if he will resign if he is fined for breaking coronavirus rules.
“That process must be completed, and I’m looking forward to it being completed, and that’s the time to say more on that,” he said during a visit to Nato headquarters in Brussels.
In Warsaw a few hours later, the prime minister rejected Sir John’s assertion that the scandal had damaged Britain’s standing abroad.
"If you look at what the UK is doing to bring the world together, if you talk to our friends in Lithuania, in Ukraine where I was the other week, or here today in Poland, you can see that actually it is the United Kingdom that has been working for months to warn people about what was happening – and I'm afraid we've been sadly proved right in what we were saying," he said.
“It’s the United Kingdom that has been working to bring countries together, not just in the sanctions package that we want to see, but also in making sure that we fortify Nato’s eastern frontier in the way that we are doing.”
Parliament in recess
Parliament broke up for a 10-day recess on Thursday, and Mr Johnson’s allies hoped the break would offer some respite from the tumult surrounding his leadership. Sir John warned that by deflecting and evading questions in an effort to protect Mr Johnson, ministers were contributing to the collapse of trust in politics.
“Trust in politics is at a low ebb, eroded by foolish behaviour, leaving a sense of unease about how our politics is being conducted. Too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional. When ministers respond to legitimate questions with pre-prepared soundbites, or half-truths, or misdirection, or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics dies a little more,” he said.
“Misleading replies to questions invite disillusion. Outright lies breed contempt. In our democracy, we are able to speak truth to power. But, if democracy is to be respected, power must also speak truth to the people. And yet, in recent years, they have not been doing so.”