Spare a thought for George Freeman. For reasons best known to himself, the decent if decidedly forgettable Tory MP had been desperate to return to Boris Johnson’s ministerial team after being sacked from a minor position in the transport department in February last year. He had even been overheard talking nonsense about the prime minister’s integrity and competence that everyone knew he didn’t believe for a second.
And his desperation paid off in September, when Johnson made him parliamentary undersecretary of state for science, research and innovation. Some might have thought an appointment to one of the most junior roles in the business department as, at best, a damning with faint praise and at worst a snub for an MP whose own assessment of his capabilities was out of line with that of his boss. But beggars can’t be choosers, so Freeman happily accepted what was on offer and since then has applied himself to his job unnoticed by everyone. Including himself.
Then on Thursday night, George got the phone call he had been dreading. After weeks of bad headlines, culminating in frequent parties inside No 10 during lockdown, absolutely everyone in government – even the lowest of the low – had made themselves unavailable for the following morning’s media round. Headaches, holidays, Christmas parties, vacuuming the stables: you name it, the excuses came tumbling out.
So eventually the No 10 communications team decided Freeman was their man. When the chips were down, George was a safe pair of hands. As in, the only pair of hands. The only person in government with so little self-worth he was unable to turn down a hospital pass. Though even he hesitated. And with good reason, because by the time he had finished with the media, he was a nervous wreck.
Freeman began by hoping that denial was the best line of defence. Asked by Justin Webb on Radio 4’s Today programme if No 10 had been a hotbed of lockdown ravers and refuseniks the previous year, he gave a dead-bat reply that he couldn’t possibly know as he hadn’t been there. Which was fair enough. Only George then panicked, thinking he might have landed Boris in trouble by being so noncommittal, so he immediately followed up by saying he had spoken to people who had been at the party and they had told him all the guidelines had been met.
That’s weird, said Webb. Because parties were specifically banned. So if the guidelines had been met, the people he had spoken to about the party couldn’t actually have been there. Because parties with large groups of people getting pissed, playing music and having fun up close and personal were banned. We were now in the realms of Schrödinger’s Night Out. One that had both taken place and not taken place, and which people had both been present at and absent from simultaneously.
Having established that No 10 had been quite happy to have any number of parties while the rest of the country either diligently obeyed lockdown rules or fought for their lives in intensive care units, the interview moved on to parties this Christmas. Where did Freeman stand on this? Was he “Live and let die, the more, the merrier”? Did he agree with Thérèse Coffey, the works and pensions secretary, that you should only snog people you knew under the mistletoe? Because as every fool knows, you can only get infected with Covid by strangers.
Freeman froze. He didn’t want to get drawn on snogging; given Boris’s past record on physical contact at parties – after all, hadn’t Amber Rudd once described him as not the bloke you would want to drive you home? – the prime minister should probably decide that for himself. So he made the schoolboy error of giving an honest and sensible answer. With so much still unknown about the Omicron variant, it was best to steer clear of big parties and crowded rooms, while smaller bashes were probably OK to go ahead.
WRONG ANSWER! The klaxons went off in Downing Street and Freeman’s phone began to vibrate. Sod the virus. The prime minister was planning a bumper Christmas and was planning on holding as many parties as possible. It would be such a relief to be able to have these ones out in the open rather than keeping them secret like last year. Not that there had been anything to keep secret last year, as there hadn’t been any parties. Just loads of people pretending to have a party.
So George had blown it again. By now he was in such a state, he even screwed up on Sky by saying 20-year-olds should contact their GPs for booster jabs. Within minutes of Freeman completing his media duties, he had been comprehensively slapped down by No 10. Now was the time for everyone to party, party, party, and to hell with the consequences. Everyone except Freeman, that is. He could merely reflect on his all too brief return to a ministerial role and wonder how long it would be before he returned to the back benches. There are some Tories who are just too good for government. This government, at any rate.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace is published by Guardian Faber, price £9.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.