If gun culture was as prevalent here as it is in the US – yet one more example this week highlighting just how prevalent, of course – I reckon Boris Johnson could probably get away with ‘accidentally’ shooting dead a member of the Cabinet and declaring he didn’t recognise his trigger-happy actions as murder or even manslaughter; he’d no doubt face angry calls for his head at PMQs and still survive as PM, brazenly blustering his way through a denial that those lackeys he hadn’t killed would applaud and support in the face of Opposition outrage. He’d apologise to his dead colleague’s widow and then say it was time to ‘move on’. The incumbent Prime Minister would be able to evade justice because he’s surrounded by deliberately-chosen mediocrities on his own side and confronted by hapless no-hopers on the other, giving him the kind of leeway no other PM in living memory has ever been able to enjoy. I should imagine all of his surviving predecessors are green-eyed when it comes to his good fortune, not to mention envying the apparent apathy of the general public towards his shameless bullshit.
After months of column inches devoted to exposing what Boris did during the pandemic war, Sue Gray’s ‘Partygate’ report – in as un-redacted a version as we could hope to expect – has finally been published, and the forced apologies are in full swing, especially in relation to the way in which some of the menials at No.10 were treated by those present at the restriction-breaking ‘work events’ held during lockdown – though probably no different from how Boris treated his luckless ‘fag’ at Eton. ‘I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations have unfolded,’ said Boris without a hint of irony in the Commons, ‘and, frankly, I have been appalled by some of the behaviour, particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff. And I’d like to apologise to those members of staff and I expect anyone who behaved that way to apologise to them as well.’ One might almost imagine he hadn’t been there were it not for the photographs that emerged on ITV News in the days leading up to the publication of the report.
Certainly, from some of the descriptions in the Gray report, a Downing Street concept of a party bears more of a relation to the kind of juvenile bash teenagers indulge in when their parents are out for the evening, the kind where some drink alcohol for the first time and the carpet is consequently exposed to the inevitable end results. Once the grownups are back in the room, cue a major league bollocking from dad, followed by a cleanup campaign by the guilty, with threats of being grounded for weeks echoing in their ears. I suppose the main difference here is that there were no parents to come home and restore order; the more junior civil servants present took their lead from the senior attendees, assuming it was okay to be there and to get stuck in because Boris and chums were doing likewise and exercising little in the way of authority; the image is of unsupervised children being allowed to run wild – like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with karaoke.
‘The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture,’ says Gray, laying blame firmly at the door of Downing Street and those who, in theory, are supposed to be the grownups there. The infamous shindig held the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in April last year officially ended at 4.20am, which at least shows the partygoers didn’t merely reserve their contempt for the lower orders whose lives they’d made a misery with regulations they themselves declined to adhere to; the lack of respect towards Her Majesty, which one naturally expects at such a moment, is pretty glaring. However, the first prominent ‘work event’ scrutinised in the report took place on 20 May 2020, a garden party at No.10 attended by around 30-40 people; it was a ‘bring your own booze’ gathering organised by the PM’s-then principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds. Mind you, there is at least an awareness that the party wasn’t strictly legit in a later WhatsApp message from Reynolds to a SPAD, in which the former opined ‘we seem to have got away with it’.
Another much-discussed work event, the so-called ‘Abba party’ held in the PM’s flat at No.10 on 13 November 2020 – one at which Carrie Antoinette was allegedly present – isn’t included amongst the 16 separate gatherings examined in Sue Gray’s report; the bash – apparently staged to mark the hasty exits of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain – was being investigated by Gray when the Met’s own investigation began, so she suspended her work for fear of prejudicing the police case. The Met are being a tad cagy about this one, admitting there were breaches of Covid regulations yet refusing to reveal how many attendees were fined; then again, it was hardly a unique occasion. The Met investigated 12 work events altogether, issuing Fixed Penalty Notices for eight of them, with 126 fines dished out to 83 people in total. As well as those gatherings already mentioned, there were also get-togethers on 18 and 19 June, 17 and 18 December (all 2020) and 14 January 2021, each resulting in retrospective fines.
‘Wine Time Fridays’ appear to have been introduced at No.10 as part of Boris’s charm offensive in the workplace, which seems like one more manifestation of his deep desire to be liked; were these placed on hiatus in the same way everyone else’s social life had to be during lockdown, I suspect most couldn’t care less if Downing Street staff enjoyed unwinding with a bottle at the end of the working week. That they carried on regardless when it was suddenly illegal to either hold or attend such gatherings is what irks and hurts those who were forced into isolation and alienation by lockdown. The Prime Minister, of course, continues to plead ignorance of his own emergency legislation that outlawed what he regarded as work events. ‘It’s clear from what Sue Gray had to say that some of these gatherings went on far longer than was necessary,’ he said whilst being repeatedly heckled in the Commons, ‘and they were clearly in breach of the rules and they fell foul of the rules.’ Your rules, mate.
Unfortunately, the photographic evidence so far doesn’t really support some of the more debauched descriptions of events at Downing Street, one of which features Boris and Rishi at the PM’s birthday ‘do’; shockingly, jugs of juice and M&S sandwiches can clearly be seen in this outrageous image! The fact the two were fined for being present at what resembles a coffee morning at a church hall perhaps yet again underlines the ridiculousness of the rules and restrictions we were all expected to abide by at the time – ditto Sir Keir and his beer. That none of our lord and masters chose to practice what they preached is one reason why this story refuses to go away in the face of rather more serious mounting issues since. Yes, they were quick to don their masks and visors when out and about in order to set a shining example to the rest of us; but once they were behind closed doors it was socially (un)distanced party time, something we were all told would probably be responsible for the death of granny – when the old dear was actually more likely to meet her maker after Matt Hancock sent her back to the care home.
Naturally, many broke lockdown rules and many remained free from having a police record; others weren’t so lucky. If, as we are occasionally informed, our politicians are only human too, I guess it’s no surprise some of them also broke the rules. Then again, members of the public who did likewise didn’t devise those rules in the first place and didn’t bombard the populace with a steady stream of propaganda, including threats of the dire consequences facing them if those rules were broken. The unravelling of Project Fear is embodied in the Partygate affair, though best not to get too complacent; who knows what treats they’ve got lined up for us re monkeypox, eh?
© The Editor