For many people, new revelations about former Prime Minister Boris Johnson allegedly entertaining all and sundry at Chequers during Covid restrictions might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Only a few months ago, the sight of him ducking and diving and weaving at the March Parliamentary Privileges Committee Hearing was enough to make even his most seasoned fans squirm. What were these farewell gatherings (parties) for? How many came, and who attended? How much drink was consumed? Really? Boris, ever-the-bluffer, looks distinctly uncomfortable. Not so much the proverbial rabbit caught the headlights as a single stray hare found out trespassing on the stadium grass when someone turns on the floodlights.
The apparent volte-face on WhatsApp messages is hard to read. It might signal a change of direction – namely complying with the courts and the general aggregate of values expected of someone inhabiting a public office. On the other hand, it could be another duck-dive-weave movement, which calculates that some of the collateral self-harm and damage caused by Partygate can be shared out with others who have so far escaped any censure. Think of this as a novel take on levelling up. If someone who once held the highest office in the land, and aspired to the greatest ambition, is now in fact heading down and out of politics, they can select others to accompany them on this trajectory. Much of what happens next will lie with the courts, WhatsApp and whatever post-Cummings spin is played out in this increasingly toxic corner of public life.
The Partygate verdict is imminent, and Boris’ kerfuffle-like-blustering won him few converts or new admirers, once he was subjected to intense and detailed scrutiny. Events at Chequers may yet see Johnson checked-out of politics in perpetuity. Yet in many respects, what was being played out on at the Hearing earlier in March is highly reminiscent of another, much older story.
In the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, we read of Adam’s disobedience. Or, if you prefer to deflect blame, Eve being tempted, and then persuading Adam to succumb. This act of eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge instantly evoked shame and guilt.
Yet many Jewish and Christian interpreters of the fable confirm that the original sin is not disobedience, or even some weak-willed succumbing to a serpentine seduction. The original sin is, rather, contempt.
Here, we are definitely in the purdah of Partygate and not some Paradise. Johnson’s fall has already come, and the only questions beckoning are what the consequences might be? It probably rules out a second coming, let alone to some pre-fall state in Eden. Like Adam and Eve, expulsion is the more likely fate.
Genesis records Adam and Eve’s epiphany when they realize they are naked. In a hopeless effort to cover their shame, they sew fig leaves together to shield their sense of disgrace and nakedness. This compelling exercise can be repeated today. Take a needle and thread and get hold of some fig leaves, and see what you can fashion. The result is futile, flimsy and funny.
Adam and Eve were less amused, and quickly recognised the utter folly of this early experiment in plant-based organically-sourced clothing. So, they hid. Genesis does not record which was the more embarrassing of the two moments – their nakedness, or an extremely poor effort in sartorial elegance. (Note: and a humiliating exit from BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee).
God has the last laugh, and cobbles together some all-weather clothes for them made from animal hides, and sends them on their way. Incidentally, the fig leave couture experiment is never mentioned again in scripture.
To be clear, Genesis is a parable. No reader of this short reflection is required to imagine Boris and Eve naked, desperately trying to improvise and fashion a wardrobe from the limited resources to hand. But as parables go, the story of the Fall is a compelling drama, and versions of this trope have found their way into ancient myths, sagas, folklore, Shakespeare – all the way through to successors such as Succession. Hubris trips you up. Pride comes before a fall.
Most institutions know that must embody integrity, probity and honesty. If institutions or individuals blame others for their own fiascos, or refuse to accept responsibility, it only adds to the sense leaders serving themselves. Reputation-management can be as foolish as the very first garments fashioned from fig leaves. It echoes Jesus’ saying in the gospels “everything now covered up will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear …” (Matthew 10.26, RNJB).
The first sin was contempt: that God and the law need not be relied upon. Rules, obedience and compliance are for others, not leaders. Adam and Eve’s sin was to presume we could all do better if we helped ourselves a bit more – and depended upon God and the law a little less. If it goes wrong, blame a third party – a serpent – or blame each other (“he made me do it” or “she said it would be OK, honest…”). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Abiding by our laws is essential for good social order.
When people sense a government, institution or their leaders are choosing to regard and treat others with contempt, seeds of revolt begin to germinate. Any institution – whether it be parliament, the police, a university, or welfare agency, church, or even a marriage – can survive most crises. They can usually cope with competing convictions, and even flourish if each party stays faithful and true to the other, their greater good, and to shared integrity.
But we cannot live with contempt. That is, contempt for others, the public and the law, and basic standards of honesty and integrity. Whether it is a marriage, familial relationship, governing party or national institution, we cannot abide contempt. In the end, the truth comes out. Lies are exposed for what they are: vain attempts at concealment. Fig leaves are futile.