Various Shades of Gray

Downing Street - Source: Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0
Downing Street – The Scene of many Parties – Source: Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0

The long-awaited Sue Gray report on Nero and his acolytes enjoying themselves while Rome was burning was finally published on 25 May. It proved to be a huge disappointment.

Ms Gray, or the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, spends 35 pages detailing the parties that took place in Downing Street at a time when people were not supposed to socialise. In each case she quotes the Covid guidelines in force at the time. She examines eight specific incidents. The precise details of these parties vary of course, but the underlying theme is one to warm the cockles of every drinker’s heart:

“individuals drank alcohol … Drinks and pizza were provided … There was food and drink available, including crisps, beer and prosecco”.   

On 18 December 2020 things got out of hand (the result of all that devil-may-care boozing):

“At approximately 19:45 that evening, a panic alarm button was accidentally triggered by a member of staff …A cleaner who attended the room the next morning noted that there had been red wine spilled on one wall.”

The sorry truth is that as people were dying alone in hospital, choking on their lung fluid, the Johnson gang were getting rat-arsed. Not once, but repeatedly.

In her conclusion Ms Gray makes the obvious point that:

Whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the  way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time”.

There were, as she says:

“… failures of leadership and judgment in No 10 and the Cabinet Office”.

Eyes wide shut

However, point 8 – the last point – of her conclusion is baffling and hugely disappointing:

Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of Government … It is my firm belief, however, that these events did not reflect the prevailing culture in Government and the Civil Service at the time”.

You can believe what you want, Sue, but you are in a tiny minority.

The full Sue Gray report is available to read here.

The following day, as The  Guardian’s John Crace  reported:

“The wine stains had finally been scrubbed off the walls of No 10. The puke-splattered bins had been thrown in the skip. The carpets had been steam cleaned … [Johnson] bumbled into the chamber … and proceeded to apologise to the House and to anyone who thought he might have misled them. Had he?”

Facts and figure

Hannah Smith of Full Fact has examined the evidence. Allegations of illegal gatherings in Downing Street were first raised by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on 1 December 2021. He asked:

“As millions of people were locked down last year, was a Christmas party thrown in Downing Street for dozens of people on 18 December [2020]?”

Johnson replied that “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10”. It is not clear from this response whether he meant all guidance was followed at all times during the pandemic, or whether he was specifically claiming that all guidance was followed on 18 December.

What happened on 13 November 2020? According to Ms Gray’s report, two gatherings took place in Downing Street on that day, both of which the Prime Minister attended. What did Johnson tell MPs about these gatherings? He first directly addressed claims that there had been a party in Downing Street on that date during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on 8 December 2021, when Labour MP Catherine West asked:

“Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?”

Johnson replied:

“No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

We can’t say for certain that Johnson’s ‘no’ was intended as a denial that a party was held on 13 November. The way that the question was phrased could mean that Johnson was instead declining to “tell the House whether there was a party”.

Johnson has repeatedly said that at the time he told Parliament all rules had been followed, he did not think any rules had been broken, including at the event he was ultimately fined for.

Was Parliament misled?

The Prime Minister’s previous claims that “the rules were followed at all times” in Downing Street are clearly contradicted by the outcome of the Metropolitan Police investigation, which resulted in 126 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) being issued to 83 individuals in connection with events held on eight days between 20 May 2020 and 16 April 2021. Johnson has himself since acknowledged that what he told Parliament was not correct, saying that while he did not at the time consider any breaches to have taken place, he subsequently accepted that some of the events were against the rules. 

Addressing the findings of Ms Gray’s report Johnson said:

I am happy to set on the record now that when I said I came to this House and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times, it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell, and my attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules.”

However, while he appears to have accepted that he inadvertently misled Parliament, he has strongly denied knowingly misleading Parliament. That is a very different question which has been referred for investigation by the cross-party Commons Privileges Committee. Once its investigation is complete, the committee will decide if it believes Mr Johnson deliberately misled Parliament and can recommend what kind of sanction, if any, he should face. All MPs will then vote to agree or disagree with its findings and recommendations.

Will the Privileges Committee actually rule that Johnson misled the House? If so, Tory MPs will have to choose between (a) doing the decent thing and agreeing with its findings or (b) acting like trapped rats and disagreeing. Either way it’s a huge blow to the government’s reputation and Johnson should resign. But I bet he won’t.

The Ministerial Code (para 1.3.c.) states:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

But, guess what, it is reported that Johnson has unilaterally changed the Code to prevent his misleading Parliament being a resignation issue. The last update of the Code was on 27 May 2022 but the update is described as “Ministerial Code updated to reflect changes announced on 27 May 2022” which is unhelpful at best or disingenuous at worst.

Where does that lead Tory MPs? Some have  finally snapped and started to try to distance themselves from Johnson. But people will ask why they have only just discovered their moral compass.

Schrödinger’s dead cat

The government’s response has been predictable: if in doubt, distract.  The Chancellor (who must struggle  to make  ends meet on his and his wife’s billions) has announced a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. Readers with a memory longer than a couple of weeks will know that Labour proposed a windfall tax. But this was pooh-poohed on the grounds that it was red-blooded Socialism (when has the Labour party ever acted like a socialist party? Just asking) and it would discourage people from investing. But now it won’t.

And there is another dead feline. Johnson has very recently announced that, to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, he is proposing to reintroduce the Imperial system of weights and measures. It is hard to decide whether this is a genuine suggestion (which would have a huge negative impact on the UK’s trade with real countries) or whether it is designed to test just how servile his MPs are.

Both these ploys are to distract from the existential threat to our democracy by a government ignoring the Nolan Principles of government (of accountability, honesty etc.) which I wrote about back in January this year.

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