Actions have consequences, goes the cliche, but in England this maxim applies to the powerless, not the powerful. The nurse who helped bear the horror of the pandemic and was fined £10,000 for a socially distanced protest against her real-terms pay cut faced consequences; so did the woman fined £10,000 for releasing balloons for her dead father-in-law. For those charged with designing, implementing and communicating the rules, not so much.
According to Sue Gray’s report, finally published today, while the country was subject to severe lockdown rules that banned hugs, No 10 officials drank beer and prosecco until they vomited, spilled wine down walls, broke a child’s swing, organised events cutely named “wine time Friday” and “wine and cheese evening” alongside a secret Santa, entertained themselves with a karaoke machine – generously provided by the former director general for propriety and ethics – and partied until after 4am. They didn’t care about what was right or wrong, but rather what was deemed a “comms risk”, and boasted – in the words of Boris Johnson’s private secretary Martin Reynolds – that they seemed “to have got away with” their illicit drinks.
There’s no question that they knew this was wrong. In fact, the findings in Gray’s report are so lacking in subtlety that you wouldn’t even find them in a script of The Thick of It. One special adviser warned officials to be mindful of “walking around waving bottles of wine etc”, while another No 10 official joked about “when we have your drinks which aren’t drinks. What time are we planning on the drinks?”
In perhaps the most revealing passage, Gray details “a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”, damned as “unacceptable”. How the powerful treat those who have almost no means of speaking back or seeking redress is the most revealing test of character. A government that cloaked itself in crude populism is, on closer inspection, stuffed full of silver-spooned charlatans whose contempt for working-class people has been ingrained for about as long as they’ve known how to walk.
Boris Johnson solemnly declared on 1 December 2021 that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”; just seven days later, he said that “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”. Here is a man who lies with as much ease as he breathes. His studied commitment to consistently doing wrong reveals the psychology of someone who thinks they can get away with anything, because, well, they can. After all, Johnson presided over a disastrously high pandemic death toll, a far greater crime than being ambushed by birthday cake. He cares as much for the unnecessarily bereaved as he does for the rules designed to protect their loved ones. As Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice put it today: “He has treated us like they treated their cleaning staff and security who challenged their law breaking at the time: like we’re an inconvenience, like we’re dirt.”
In his turgid non-apology to the Commons, Johnson offered the pitiful excuse that his team “were working extremely long hours” fighting the pandemic, excusing his attendance of objectively illegal leaving drinks as an “exemption” which was “one of the most essential duties of leadership”. Let us put this gently: PPE-clad nurses and doctors tending to the bodies of the dying and holding their hands because their loved ones were banned by law from doing so were also “working extremely long hours”, but hospitals were not full of NHS staff downing prosecco around karaoke machines.
The Metropolitan police’s repeated refusal to investigate these parties is a microcosm of a justice system which all too readily fined children and charged homeless people for breaking lockdown rules. While junior officials were fined for attending certain illicit events, the prime minister was not fined for his attendance at these same events. This makes no sense, until you consider that in the 19th century, England hanged the poor for pickpocketing while its rulers plundered the globe. Our establishment has a long tradition of imposing punishment unequally – and protecting itself.
The full story has not still emerged, and nor is it likely to – not when it matters, anyway. Neither the Met nor Sue Gray have investigated the so-called “Abba” party to celebrate Dominic Cummings’ departure. This isn’t just a dash of whitewash: it’s a bucketload. Will Johnson survive? While Gray declares that “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture”, the blame will be spread about too far to stick. This is not a country in which power tends to be met with accountability. Perhaps history will damn our current leaders. Yet that provides little comfort when you consider the rehabilitation of deporter-in-chief Theresa May. Impunity is the culture that defines our establishment, because the consequences never arrive.
The opposition bet the house that Partygate would be the nemesis of Johnsonian hubris, partly because it has abandoned any semblance of a coherent alternative vision that might inspire people instead. Amid the justifiable rage from a country that sacrificed so much – the needless deaths, and the millions of people left to struggle as prices surge – Partygate was never our leadership’s greatest crime. If we are ever to be rid of these cartoonish crooks, indignation at their spiteful misdemeanours isn’t enough: it’s a sense of hope that the world really can be better that remains the most compelling antidote of all.