The three-card trick: how governments fool the public and avoid responsibility

Philip Coggan
3 min readApr 17, 2022


The British partygate scandal has been handled with a tactic so old, and so obvious, that it is amazing anyone falls for it. But the tactic is used becaue it appears to work. Or at least, it works because the tactic is hidden within a blizzard of obfuscation.

In the wake of any scandal, step one is to set up an investigation. Step two is to say that it is too early for anyone to resign, or apologise, because the investigation is in progress. Indeed, those accused can refuse to comment at all. The press, or opposition politicians, will be accused of “prejudging” the investigation. The longer the investigation takes the better. The chances are that there will be some doubt, or extenuating circumstances, in the report.

Even if there aren’t, step three will involve the government saying that lessons have been learned, circumstances have changed and it was all a long time ago. Time for everyone to move on and for the government to get on with the job.
The trick has been very blatant this time. First, Boris Johnson asked civil servants to investigate the parties (the process was botched and the original investigator had to be replaced). Sue Gray, the new investigator, was described in reverential tones. Ministers and Conservative MPs solemnly said that “we must wait for Sue Gray’s report”.

Innocents might have assumed that, if the report was damning, senior resignations would have been required. But the report was in fact so damning that the police felt they had to investigate. What seemed like bad news for Johnson was in fact good. The police investigation meant a further delay, and resulted in the publication of an expurgated version of the Gray report. By the time, the Gray report is published it will seem like old news.

Meanwhile, news of the police investigation has only dribbled out, diluting its impact. Johnson has been fined and, as far as most commentators can remember, was the first PM to be so penalised while in office. But ministers are now trotting out the “we need to move on” phrase, while downplaying the nature of the offence. They also claim that we cannot replace Johnson during a war (in which Britian is not a combatant) or because of the cost of living crisis (which the government isn’t handling that well).

Now of course, Johnson is able to get away with this because his party has a parliamentary majority and a fair portion of the press on side. With some honourable exceptions, most Tory MPs are being as craven towards Johnson as Republicans are to Trump.

Partygate is only the prelude to an even bigger version of the three-card trick in relation to the government’s handling of the pandemic. An investigation was announced but delayed because it would “distract” from handling the disease. The remit is likely to be so wide-ranging that the report will probably emerge after the next general election by which point it will all be “a long time ago”.

There is, of course, lots to investigate from the initial decision to delay lockdown and the PM’s stupid remarks about shaking hands with Covid patients, through the money wasted on procurement, government loans and the “eat out to help out” scheme and the initial failure of “test and trace”. But senior people will not be held responsible because the trick is likely to work again.



Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine