WITH the fairy lights twinkling, the Christmas candles lit and a bowl of tangerines to hand, I decided to stop doom-scrolling through my social media feeds and kick back in front of the TV.

BBC4 was screening a Christmas special of Yes Minister, the brilliant, razor-sharp 1980s sitcom I’ve been working my way through since the days of household bubbles. I figured there was little risk of spoilers – the follow-up series is, after all, called Yes, Prime Minister – so this seemed like the perfect choice.

While I’ve been struck by how bizarrely relevant almost every episode has felt to our current times (covering everything from Eurosceptic schisms and honours scandals to environmental battles and Scottish independence), there’s no way the writers predicted a global pandemic, Christmas restrictions and governmental hypocrisy of gobsmacking proportions, surely? Therefore I could sit under a blanket and cocoon myself in the warm embrace of simpler times, forgetting about the breaking news alerts on my phone and the box of lateral flow tests in the next room.

The title screen – Party Games – prompted a wry smile, but of course it was perfectly above board for Jim Hacker, Minister for Administrative Affairs, to host a little boozy gathering in his office to mark the end of the parliamentary session. He even brought his wife along to join in the merriment – how festive! There was just one rule emphasised amid the gift-giving and speech-making: the Home Secretary’s campaign message “Don’t drink and drive this Christmas”.

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Cut to a scene of Mr and Mrs Hacker in the car, with the sozzled minister insisting he is driving “perfectly safely” while crawling along at about 10 miles an hour. The arrival of a police car prompts mild consternation, but Jim is too drunk to panic, and supremely confident that his “silver badge” (ie his ministerial privilege) will protect him from any serious consequences.

And so it proves. Creative license, of course, by the writers – it is, after all, preposterous to suggest that officers of the Metropolitan Police would decline to charge anyone for an offence with public safety implications simply because they are a member of the government.

Hacker does not escape censure altogether, as his former permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby is now Cabinet Secretary, and therefore charged with reprimanding and warning those who get up to no good. “You’re not trying to tick me off or anything, are you?” Hacker splutters, outraged that he might face any consequences whatsoever for his actions. A threat to inform the Crown Prosecution Service is required to shut him up.

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One rule for them and one for the rest of us – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. But it’s the second half of the episode that really got me wondering. Boris Johnson was 20 when it was first broadcast, and while he doubtless spent much of the 1984 festive period stomping around Oxford with his equally obnoxious pals, it was broadcast on a Monday, when he was likely nursing a hangover, if not picking shards of smashed restaurant cutlery out of his hair.

Viewers at the time regarded most of its plots as farce, but for Johnson might it have been a how-to guide?

Hacker is, quite evidently, completely unsuited to the role of prime minister – he’s lazy, arrogant and dim-witted – but he’s also increasingly hungry for publicity and prestige, and with the right people whispering advice into his ear, anything is possible.

Even before he entered politics, Johnson was taking a leaf out of the fictional character’s book by spreading lies about European regulations. Viewers in the 1980s laughed at the notion of a politician claiming the British sausage was being outlawed, as Hacker falsely did as part of a scheme to grab himself a positive headline a few days later. What a coincidence that a radio report on the sitcom states that “the sausage could be another banana skin”.

The National Wales: The past few weeks have been a challenge for beleaguered PM Boris Johnson. Photo: PAThe past few weeks have been a challenge for beleaguered PM Boris Johnson. Photo: PA

Johnson was not responsible for stories about the EU banning “bendy bananas” that hit the tabloid front pages in 1994, but he was undoubtedly inspired by them when he became a Brussels correspondent himself. He certainly had no qualms about referencing such supposedly “crazy rules” during the 2016 EU referendum campaign.

Examples of his own truth-stretching “reporting” from Brussels included claims the Italians were demanding smaller condoms (actually they were seeking safety checks in a bid to help curb the spread of HIV) and that the European Commission’s headquarters would be blown up by the end of 1991 (The Guardian noted in 2019 that it was still standing, and indeed “houses many of the individuals who will negotiate with Johnson, should he become prime minister, on Britain’s future relationship with the EU”).

It’s often remarked that everything seems like a joke to Johnson – from trashing the UK’s reputation abroad to “bodies piling high” at home – and this TV blast from the past suggests that when others were laughing, he was taking notes.

This column originally appeared in our sister title, The National in Scotland. 

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