Legend has it that, when told her subjects couldn’t afford bread, Marie Antoinette replied “let them eat cake”.


Today, while historians have cast doubt on the veracity of the tale, it remains apocryphal; a reminder of the dangers of allowing our leaders to become too far removed from the daily lives of their subjects.


One can only imagine that the out-of-touch Antoinette would have fitted in quite nicely on Downing Street, where a culture of ‘them and us’ elitism appears to be so embedded that the prime minister, his wife and his chancellor – more on him later – are among 50 individuals being fined by the Met police over lockdown parties. The ‘so far’ is critical. The investigation is still ongoing, with more fines expected.


The question now is, how many fines does it take to change a cabinet?


Them and us


That they partied while others died alone should be all that needs to be said to make Johnson and Sunak’s positions untenable. The reality however, in 2022’s Britain, is that we’re barely even surprised it’s come to this.


For months, we’ve known that at least 12 gatherings that would have been illegal at ordinary Joe’s house took place unimpeded round BoJo’s highly-policed gaffe. We’ve heard the prime minister insist no rules were broken, even as we all knew they were. We’ve watched opposition MPs be removed from parliament for calling out those lies, while the lies themselves have gone unpunished.


Now, the supposed reckoning comes in the shape of £25 or £50 fines handed to the rulemakers, while ordinary ‘rulebreakers’ have paid three and four figure penalties for such crimes as standing still in the street or visiting dying friends. Yet, if any of us are shocked to find ourselves here, it’s only because for so long, it looked as though the police wouldn’t bother to investigate at all. One rule for them and another for us is our new normal.


Image: Ben Hope/Unsplash


For almost three years now, Boris Johnson has presided over a government increasingly comfortable in leading without example, removing every ounce of empathy from the job of national leadership. Whether it’s the billions wasted buying PPE from friends, the creeping xenophobia of an increasingly hostile immigration system, the erosion of basic rights such as the freedom to protest, the acceptance of misogyny in policing or the insistence – on International Women’s Day no less –  that’s Britain’s eye-wateringly expensive childcare system needs no intervention, this is a government that governs for a shrinking elite at the expense of all others. And nowhere has this been clearer than in the case of Rishi Sunak.


Rishi Rich’s riches


Despite what The Times’s Matthew Parris tried to claim this weekend, the chancellor is not the victim of “wealth envy” so much as the victim of his own greed.


Once government’s golden boy for his work on the furlough scheme, Sunak has transformed into a one-man wrecking ball swinging at his own career of late. Borrowing a prole’s car to look normal while filling up with exorbitantly priced petrol was a bold move, made even more cringeworthy by his subsequent attempts to try to pay for it by holding his platinum card under a barcode scanner as though he’d never used contactless before. One can only assume he has staff to shop for the “whole range of breads” favoured in his households – perhaps, in that sense, he has something in common with Will Smith after all.


Image: Samir Hussein/WireImage


But while many of his recent gaffes have led to outright mockery on Twitter, it’s not funny really, is it? For this is a man who, despite being married to a woman richer than the Queen, has made it his mission to make the poor poorer. A man who now, having just moved his family out of his grace and favour flat on Downing Street, wants to use public money to investigate a leak about his wife’s tax avoidance.


He insists the revelations about his wife’s non-dom status are part of a “smear campaign”, and claims that as a “private citizen”, Akshaty Murthy’s wealth should be private too. But what has been less discussed is that this is yet another rule that does not apply to the ordinary people Sunak presides over.


One rule for them…


Not so very long ago, I was a single mum in receipt of Universal Credit. Today, while I’m once again looking down the barrel of economic uncertainty, this time I’m joined by the rest of the country. Yet if things get more difficult this time around, I’ll no longer be able to rely on that safety net. The reason? I got married.


You see, while Rishi wants us to respect the privacy of his wife’s financial affairs, under benefits law, household income and savings must be combined. Despite years of warnings that this system leaves victims of abuse trapped, benefits claims must be made as a couple by anyone co-habiting or married. There’s no such thing as separation of assets for those at the bottom of the financial tree – yet we are being asked to accept it at the top. It’s perhaps the most clear cut example yet of the government’s financial disconnect from the lives of ordinary families.


Image: Josh Appel/Unsplash


Sunak’s defence is that his wife’s behaviour was lawful. But it’s only lawful because, for years, people like him have made rules for people like him, carving out loopholes for themselves while asking poorer and more vulnerable people to pay the price. Now, we’re being asked to express surprise that the government broke its own lockdown laws. But no one who’s been watching is surprised.


Should Johnson and Sunak resign? That shouldn’t really be a question. Will they resign? That’s the one that matters, and the jury is very much out. But if the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that our leaders look out for themselves above all others. And when people show you who they are, you should believe them.


Still, at least we have bread, for now…


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