If the Suez Crisis had happened two decades later, it would probably have been called Canalgate. Since Richard Nixon tried to cover up the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, every political scandal has had the ‘-gate’ suffix attached. It was inevitable, therefore, that the allegations of lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street should be called ‘Partygate’.
Such is the hold of the Watergate scandal on the imagination that journalists think of themselves as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman – sorry, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – and several phrases associated with it have entered the lexicon. ‘Follow the money’ is one; another is: ‘What did the president know, and when did he know it?’ There was a faint echo of this when Sir Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson in the House of Commons: ‘When did the prime minister first become aware that any of his staff had concerns about the May 20 party?’
Each scandal brings its own additions to the language of politics. The Profumo affair gave us: ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’ The MPs’ expenses scandal gave us the claims for a ‘duck house’ and ‘cleaning a moat’ – even though neither of these was actually paid. While the unpopular policies in George Osborne’s 2012 Budget gave us the ‘pasty tax’ and the word borrowed from the TV satire The Thick of It, ‘omnishambles’.
The most recent furore has every wit in the country renaming their parties ‘work events’; an online shop has even produced T-shirts urging people to ‘Join the Conservative Work Event’.
The ‘suitcase of booze’ has come to symbolize the outrage and ridicule heaped on the prime minister: the most vivid image in the newspaper accounts of a party held in the basement of No 10 on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral was of an official sent to the nearest Co-op to fill a wheeled suitcase with bottles of wine.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s hostile former chief adviser who first disclosed the drinks in the No 10 garden, has added a whole sub-vocabulary of his own. Most notably, his use of the shopping-cart emoji in his tweets to represent The Trolley, his name for Johnson, who said in 2016 when trying to decide whether to support leaving the European Union: ‘I’m veering all over the place like a shopping trolley.’
Partygate is a rather unimaginative label, though. Perhaps it should go down in history as Trolleygate.