It is one of the most famous historical anecdotes in history and the prime example of a self-centered ruling elite narcissistically out of touch with its suffering people. When told of the fact that the hard-pressed peasants could no longer afford to buy their staple of bread, Marie Antoinette, the bubble-headed queen of pre-revolutionary France, supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.” The only problem with this telling, damning story is that there is absolutely no evidence that she ever said anything of the sort, with the whole fabricated incident most likely conjured up fully 50 years after the French Revolution.
But what makes the story memorable, and why it has lasted, is that she could well have said something exactly along those lines. The French aristocracy, mired in crippling debt and addicted to a lifestyle the country simply could no longer afford, quickly collapsed under its own weight in the late 1780s-early 1790s precisely because the famous quote does sum up its oblivious attitude. The story has stuck because, while technically not factual, it exposes a greater truth about the decadent French ruling elite and why history swept it away.
Amid all the bureaucratic hustle and bustle that presently surrounds UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s travails, what ultimately matters is not the details of what the civil servant, Sue Gray, concludes in her investigation about supposedly illegal parties both the prime minister and his senior staff attended on numerous occasions during the long lockdown period — even as they sonorously cautioned the rest of the country to stay strictly quarantined. It does not really matter the precise number of illicit gatherings (which will be counted on more than two hands), which ones Johnson actually attended or whether the prime minister knew the gatherings were technically “parties” or not.
In the end, it also does not matter overmuch about the police investigation into the incidents, which have superseded the Gray report, either. If convicted of committing an actual crime, the prime minister will merely be forced to pay the equivalent of a parking ticket. All this legal and bureaucratic flummery is a sign of our mediocre age, as if the rest of us need a technocratic, expert-driven determination as to what a party is. While British officialdom may thrill to such ridiculous trivialities, they do nothing in the long term to change Johnson’s basic Marie Antoinette problem. The precise details of his alleged crimes matter far less than the fact they confirm a damning, greater truth.
Johnson, at the height of the COVID-19 tragedy and with his suffering country forced to quarantine itself from burying their dead, thought the restrictive pandemic rules he himself had formulated were ridiculous and beneath him. Or, in the genuine words of arrogant, convicted 1980s tax evader Leona Helmsley, “only the little people pay taxes.” This stigma is what will dog Johnson for the rest of his days and, in the medium term, lead to his removal as prime minister.
The story of “partygate” merely confirms a larger, already-suspected truth about the man and his character. His elitist belief that rules are for the little people is incendiary and unforgivable, coupled with the mass suffering of his people. This reality cannot be investigated away or talked away and it will not be forgotten by the British people. The Johnson premiership is living on borrowed time.
A January Times/YouGov poll confirms this. When asked the question, “Do you believe the prime minister when he said the party he was attending was a work event?” an overwhelming 70 percent of those polled said no, with a mere 13 percent believing this lamest of excuses (there are reportedly pictures showing him cradling a beer at the time). As to whether Johnson should resign over this, a large majority, 63 to 24 percent, said that he should. Only 8 percent of those polled said the prime minister had been honest about the allegations of parties in 10 Downing Street. Given that Johnson has gone from saying there were no parties, to saying if there were parties he is shocked, to saying he attended some of those parties but thought they were work events, I am incredulous that he managed the 8 percent.
The Metropolitan Police investigation, and then the release of the Gray report, will buy Johnson some time, as will the upcoming local elections. Even an internal Conservative leadership challenge (and one is coming) could see him remain in power. But all of this is merely window dressing, obscuring the larger fact that, in policy terms, the historic Johnson premiership — dominated by Brexit and the pandemic — is at an end.
The Conservative Party, in many ways the most successful modern party in the Western world, has thrived precisely because of its lack of sentimentality about its leaders once they fall upon hard times. Famously, even the invincible Margaret Thatcher, winner of three barnstorming elections, was swiftly dispatched as her popularity plummeted over the poll tax. With the Tories about 10 points behind Labour in recent polling, and with the public’s mind made up about him, it is only a matter of time until Johnson is shown the door. He simply cannot overcome his Marie Antoinette problem.