I’ve been trying to imagine how I’d have felt, had I still been working in 10 Downing Street, if I’d been invited to the now infamous garden party in May 2020. Within minutes, I’m pretty sure, one of my team would have erupted with incredulity at receiving a “BYOB” invite, when other citizens were being ordered to cower in their homes. The fact that only 40 or so guests attended a party planned for 100 suggests that many of his staff had more decency, and better judgment, than the prime minister.
Downing Street is a cramped house with no air conditioning. It would have been sweltering on May 20 — and I’d have expected staff to take breaks in the garden. But on receipt of the email about a party, one of us would surely have asked Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary who sent it, what on earth our dear leader thought he was doing. For it is inconceivable that an email from the civil servant in that role was not sent at the direct behest of the prime minister. That’s how it works.
Does “partygate” really rank with the ERM crisis or the Iraq war, episodes which helped eventually to bring down, respectively, John Major and Tony Blair? Many voters think all politicians are hypocrites, and Johnson is banking on Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating the affair, not being able to disprove his claim that he thought the May 20 event was a “work” do.
But as the parties pile up — including the latest confirmation of a boozy 2021 leaving do — they should prove fatal because they crystallise something bigger: the cavalier way in which Johnson has run his premiership. The lack of integrity over everything from the Northern Irish protocol to his attempt to prorogue Parliament, to ignoring the standards committee’s findings against the Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
At the heart of this saga is a man who has no problem breaking the rules himself, but who had imposed a draconian lockdown on the public. This was a government on a mission to spread fear — so much so that one worried senior adviser told me, in the summer of 2020, that one-third of the public had become what he called “phobic”. The mental health consequences of that strategy are only just beginning to emerge but they are horrific.
The rules were enforced by police who, in a few cases, seemed to take excessive pleasure in menacing the public. That March, Derbyshire police had released a video of two people walking their dog in the vast open spaces of the Peak District, warning that this was not “essential travel”. On May 20, the Metropolitan Police warned people not to gather in groups to enjoy the hottest day of the year.
The police are key to what happens next. One of the things which has been bothering me about the Downing Street parties is why officers who must have witnessed them did nothing. So ubiquitous are the valiant officers who guard the building, staffers sometimes groan that their tastes (chips and butties) dominate the menu of the small canteen. By holding a party, the prime minister was putting the police in a tricky position — fining members of the public for sitting on a park bench, but turning a blind eye to trestle tables being set up in the rose garden. The Metropolitan Police has so far refused to investigate, but are now considering doing so. The Good Law Project, a campaign group, has issued formal legal proceedings against them.
This is what happens with Johnson: he taints the people and institutions that come into his orbit. Remember the video of his press secretary Allegra Stratton cringing as she tried to work out what on earth she could say if asked by journalists about a party that she herself had had the good sense to avoid? The mental gymnastics required to keep getting Johnson out of scrapes are debasing — for his staff, his ministers, his party and now the police, whose constitutional independence is a cornerstone of our democracy.
The casualties are mounting. Stratton has resigned. Former Brexit minister Lord David Frost, a man who owes his political career to Johnson, has jumped ship. So has Sir Alex Allan, his former standards adviser. And now Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, has quietly taken his leave and fled.
Conservative MPs are now mulling their next move. If Johnson continues to poll almost as badly as Theresa May did just prior to her demise, they will conclude that a new face is needed to beat Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. When the leadership contest eventually begins, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, the current favourites, will need to shake off the taint of having served in this Cabinet. Sunak felt the need to make an urgent visit to Ilfracombe in Devon rather than sit behind Johnson when he apologised to the House of Commons.
Outsiders may find it easier to claim integrity. Jeremy Hunt, who lost to Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest, has gained in stature since becoming chair of the health select committee. So has Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee. Sajid Javid only came back into government last year, having resigned as chancellor rather than let Johnson push him around.
Tory MPs are no longer in awe of Johnson or his winning credentials. But they are still afraid of him. Behind the charming exterior there is a malevolence that casts blame wherever it is expedient. On that fateful day in May, it may be that no one dared to challenge Reynolds or Johnson — some people just stayed at their desks, or slunk home. Good public servants believe that they are serving the office of the prime minister, not just the individual. The problem is that this prime minister has damaged the office.