Anyone under the age of 30 may not be aware of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, but as Partygate rumbles on, the similarities between the two become ever stronger. Are we seeing history repeating itself?
Once upon a time
Let’s quickly recap the Watergate story for those unaware of it. It was the defining political scandal of the second half of the last century (the suffix -’gate’ has denoted political shenanigans ever since). Republican Richard Nixon had been elected president of the USA in 1968 and in 1972 was planning a second term. Some weighty political issues such as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights could have made him electorally vulnerable and he became deeply suspicious – even paranoid – about his Democrat opponents. He sought every political advantage, no matter its legitimacy.
Among those working for him were Dwight Chapin (his deputy assistant), Ron Ziegler (his press secretary) and Donald Segretti, a lawyer. All three were university friends from Southern California and had used shady tactics – dubbed ‘ratfucking‘ – while at university, to influence elections there. Once at the White House, Chapin hired Segretti to do the same sort of thing for Nixon. (Donald Trump supporter Roger Stone worked for Nixon too. Fancy that!)
In 1972, the White House-based Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) hatched a plan to bug the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington. In June, five men broke into the building to plant the devices but were arrested. All of them were carrying unexplained sums of money along with a variety of cameras and other recording equipment. The story was picked up by two Washington Post journalists – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – whose determined investigative reporting was immortalised in Alan J Pakula’s Oscar-winning film All The President’s Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
The White House denied anything improper but the reporters had an anonymous FBI source they called ‘Deep Throat’, who fed them suggestions for areas they should investigate. Eventually they linked the money back to the White House. The reason the story became such a huge scandal was the revelation that Nixon had tape recorded practically every conversation that took place in the Oval Office. In November 1973, as questions about his honesty and the integrity of US democracy mounted, Nixon gave a television news conference where he declared, “I’m not a crook.” But the tapes revealed he’d known of the covert operations. His fate was sealed and, in August 1974, he resigned. The only president ever to do so.
50 years later
How does Partygate compare? There are some interesting similarities. It has its own Deep Throat in Dominic Cummings, who has repeatedly spoken of Johnson’s shortcomings. It’s got its own investigative journalist in Pippa Crerar of the Daily Mirror, who exposed the first evidence of wrongdoing. But the really interesting comparisons are with Nixon’s ‘I’m not a crook’ speech.
First, Nixon declares, “I’ve never profited from public service”. Though Johnson has never said he has, we know about the expensive flat makeover which a party donor paid for initially – Wallpapergate? – and we also know there is a lot of Russian money sloshing about which has certainly been of political benefit to the Conservative party and by extension, Johnson himself.
Nixon then declares, “I’ve never obstructed justice”. Between May 2020 and April 2021, multiple gatherings during periods of lockdown took place in and around No 10, some of which Johnson attended. When news of the parties first emerged in early December 2021, he denied anything improper, stating unequivocally, “the guidelines were followed at all times.” This is now clearly untrue.
The Metropolitan Police were very slow to get involved, leading to suspicions they had been ‘got at’. Now they are investigating but the delay has enabled Johnson to get publication of the full version of the Sue Gray report postponed, claiming the police investigation needed to be completed first. We know Johnson has received a fine and there may be more to come but the police have decided they will not reveal the names of those involved until after the May local elections. Legal experts such as barrister Adam Wagner consider this to be ‘unusual’.
Johnson then tried to block the parliamentary enquiry into his conduct (having previously also tried to block the parliamentary investigation into Owen Paterson’s illegal lobbying activity). Let’s not forget too that he tried proroguing Parliament illegally in 2019; and he’s never released the unredacted Russia Report on foreign interference in the electoral system.
Finally, Nixon says, “I welcome this kind of examination.” Johnson said the same to Gary Gibbon on Channel 4 news last week. Nixon’s remark was the prelude to his downfall once the Watergate tapes were revealed. With three investigations into Johnson’s conduct in place, it’s not fanciful to think there is more evidence – photos or even videos, such as the Allegra Stratton/No 10 press office discussion on how to spin the story – yet to emerge.
There is also the matter of Johnson’s repeated denials that he’s misled Parliament, itself a resigning matter. Parliament has already decided on an enquiry into this. David Allen Green, a leading commentator on matters of law and parliamentary procedure, says that even if he genuinely doesn’t think he knowingly misled the House, Johnson’s denials may not be the escape mechanism he thinks they are.
Does this mean anything?
None of this means the same fate for Johnson as befell Nixon, but it might happen. The local elections present the first threat. A bad result for the Tories would likely mean the 1922 committee getting the 54 letters needed for a leadership challenge. He might well survive that but then he has the Sue Gray report and the Privileges Committee enquiry to come. Like Nixon, he may limp on but would be badly damaged as would his party, who have stuck with him. Conservative options don’t look good.
Spanish philosopher George Santayana once coined the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Watergate offers us a lesson from history. Johnson (like Nixon) suffers from hubris, which means excessive pride or self-confidence. In Greek tragedy, hubris leads to nemesis. The ultimate irony would be that Johnson, who famously likes his classics, is brought down by the very thing that defines him.