We have rewritten history and reimagined the rules to be more draconian than they actually were - Tom Harwood says

If we are to have any consistency in how rules are now being retrospectively enforced, surely the First Minister of Scotland must now be fined too

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On 19th of June 2020, Boris Johnson attended several gatherings, he was sung Happy Birthday. He was given a cake.

No, not by advisers in the Cabinet Room, but first by the pupils and teachers of Bovingdon School in Hertfordshire.

To journalists and official photographers, Boris held a cake aloft! One that had been given to him by delighted teachers as he made his visit to the school.

Happy Birthday was sung to him by a gathering of schoolchildren. Fun was had by all and shortly afterwards, the photographs were released by Number 10 to political journalists.

This party (as the word party is apparently how we are now describing every brief singsong of happy birthday these days) has not landed the teachers or pupils of Bovingdon School with a fine. And rightly so. Everyone can see that would be absurd.

No one thought that cake giving and singsong was against the rules.

Boris Johnson giving a statement after being issued with Partygate fines
Boris Johnson giving a statement after being issued with Partygate fines

Just as an event a couple of hours later, in the Cabinet Room was not thought to be against the rules either.

Indeed, the story of this singsong of Happy Birthday and Cabinet Room cake was briefed to the press at the time, published that night by The Times.

No one minded. Not the downing street advisers who briefed it out, not the seasoned political journalists who wrote it up, and not the British public who read the story in their newspapers the next day.

Yet two years later, through the distorted lens of Partygate, suddenly this innocuous event has been judged to be rule breaking.

A group of police officers walk through Downing Street, in Westminster, London, during a protest outside the gates
A group of police officers walk through Downing Street, in Westminster, London, during a protest outside the gates

In a way that I know has privately surprised many political journalists. Though sadly relatively few would say so in public.

Clearly the Chancellor was shocked at this fine too. He had no idea he had done anything wrong.

Interpretations of the rules up until last week did not suggest that such an event would come anywhere close to breaching the rules.

Police forces, lawyers, and the public at large did not treat the rules as unforgiving as that, until now that is.

We have rewritten history and reimagined the rules to be more draconian than they actually were.

If the rules had been interpreted as the Met Police have belatedly interpreted them, just about every person in the country would have been slapped with a fine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak during a visit to Fourpure Brewery in Bermondsey, London
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak during a visit to Fourpure Brewery in Bermondsey, London

Not least of all the Metropolitan Police, who gathered on Westminster Bridge, led by Commissioner Cressida Dick herself, to applaud the NHS at the height of lockdown at the end of April 2020.

Yet they did not refer themselves for Fixed Penalty Notices.

Of course they didn't. If they had then ordinary members of the public the country over would have been handed penalties. But to remind everyone, they were not. The bar was high. The pupils and teachers of Bovingdon School did not get fined.

Nor did the heroic nurse Lynne Gillmore who in May 2020 marked her 70th birthday with the team of district nurses in the town of Flint with presents and small party.

The good natured event, with cake and smiles was reported in the local press at the time.

Lead district nurse Wendy Mousley proudly told the local paper that “During this lock down period, Lynne is aware she should be self-isolating due to her age but refuses to do this. She has agreed reluctantly to remain office based as she loves to be in contact with her patients, but wants to be with her team.”

And good for her. I hope she had a wonderful birthday party with her colleagues. As essential workers did up and down the country.

And I hope how everyone can see that no one thought these people should have been fined at the time. How no one interpreted the rules that draconianly for anyone across the country.

The rules were generously interpreted, even for senior politicians.

Sir Keir Starmer’s beer with work colleagues was ruled by local police to not be rule breaking. No, this was described as a work meeting. A work meeting with alcohol.

And fair enough. Yet why on earth then did Boris receive a fine for having a cake, let alone Rishi Sunak? Where is the consistency?

The rules have, in the case of the Prime Minister, been interpreted in their most extreme, draconian form.

In a way in which they were interpreted for no other individual in the country. Not even other senior politicians.

Which now brings us to Nicola Sturgeon.

The First Minister of Scotland was pictured breaching her own rules over the weekend. Not wearing a mask despite enforcing others to do so.

A minor breach of the rules, as minor perhaps as daring to have a birthday cake.

Surely, if we are to have any consistency in how rules are now being retrospectively enforced, surely the First Minister of Scotland must now be fined too.

Or if she isn’t, surely Prime Minister and Chancellor’s absurd Cabinet Room fines should be refunded too.

Else it really is one rule for Boris and another for everyone else, just not in the way that we’ve all been told.