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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG

No UK public servant can act as judge, jury and executioner of their prime minister. That’s the prerogative of Boris Johnson’s large Conservative party majority in the House of Commons and, at a later date, the voters at the next general election. 

Yet many media folk had high expectations of Sue Gray, the former head of ethics at the Cabinet Office who was drafted in to lead the investigation into “Partygate” — the multiple breaches of lockdown rules at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic. Gray has been variously described as “the woman who runs the country” and “the high priestess of ethics”, but firing her boss was always above her pay grade.

Gray’s final report, published on Wednesday, adds lurid detail but does not significantly advance her own interim findings, delivered earlier in 2022 when a belated police inquiry into Partygate (leading to more than 100 individuals being fined) forced her to put her operations on hold. 

The juicy stories and the nine photographs of Johnson raising a glass might have been fatal to the prime minister in January or February when the public’s anger was still white hot, but after months of delay, they merely confirm what everyone already thinks about him. The political class always knew he enjoyed playing Lord of Misrule and now everyone outside the Westminster bubble knows it too.

Unless a minimum of 54 Tory MPs decide that they would do better at the polls with a new leader, there will be no contest to challenge him. And no mere public servant will bring him down.

Gray tried to do her duty as she sees it, saying, “I have already commented in my update on what I found to be failures of leadership and judgment in No 10 and the Cabinet Office. The events that I investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government.” 

But the use of the passive case in her findings is indicative. The parties “should not have been allowed to happen”. Which begs the question: who did allow them and who should be held accountable?

In reply, the prime minister’s defenders admit error but no great fault. They argue the greater importance of the Ukraine war and the cost-of-living crisis and urge the country “to move on”. If that argument fails to convince the doubters, they point to Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s consumption of a bottle of beer at a curry supper while on campaign — a convenient smokescreen for breaches of lockdown rules on an industrial scale at No 10.

Each week, Gray says, the No 10 Press Office “brought in wine on Fridays to mark the end of the week. This was known as Wine Time Friday where bottles of wine were placed on a table in a small room adjacent … and people could help themselves.” To get to his private flat upstairs at No 10, Johnson would have to pass that room.

On Wednesday, a “humbled” Johnson accepted “full responsibility” for Partygate in parliament but then undercut his apology with the assertion that rule-breaking only took place after he had left each gathering. He has been fined by the police for one breach of the rules alone — attending a brief surprise birthday celebration — though from the evidence of the photographs, he had a drink at more than one event. He insists that attending leaving drinks was “one of the essential duties of leadership”. We can all agree that was one duty he never failed.

Like Captain Renault in the film Casablanca who professed himself  “shocked, shocked” at the discovery of illegal gambling while pocketing his cut, the prime minister was also “appalled” to find that breaches of the regulations occurred after he left. Unlike Renault, however, Johnson will leave it to others “to round up the usual suspects”, though Gray’s report puts in a plea for leniency for the hapless junior officials now subject to disciplinary hearings. Johnson wisely added apologies for “the little people” too — the security staff jeered at by partygoers for trying to do their jobs and the cleaners who had to wipe up the vomit and clean the red-wine stains the day after.

Loyally, Gray defends the integrity of the public service, which she says was let down by a few individuals. Yet there is something rotten in the state of the mandarinate. The country’s top public servant, cabinet secretary Simon Case, who originally led the Partygate investigation, was forced to recuse himself after it became known that an event had been held in his own office. Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, sent party invitations to 200-300 staffers with the request to “bring your own bottle” and was told by a colleague he had “got away with it”.

Gray’s narrative also belies her words. Take her account of one of the most notorious parties: “some brought pizza and prosecco and they were followed by others, over the next couple of hours. Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary, attended for part of the evening and provided a karaoke machine which was set up in an adjoining office to the waiting room.” And what was McNamara’s real job? She was Gray’s successor as head of ethics for the public service and government.

Gray continues: “The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill [the most senior public servant in the country], returned from a meeting and noted that there were individuals in his waiting room. He stayed for a short time and before leaving for another meeting he gave permission for the use of his office for a short time. The event lasted for a number of hours. There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals … The last member of staff, who stayed to tidy up, left at 03:13.” 

As the mafia saying has it, “The fish rots from the head down.”

Even those on the front lines fighting the pandemic broke the rules. The head of the Covid-19 task force, Kate Josephs, whooped it up at another farewell bash — “Kate Josephs left later at around 00:23 after tidying up”, says Gray blandly. 

A week before one notorious party that Johnson — “briefly” — attended, the prime minister appeared on television to thank the voters. “I have asked much of the British people: more than any prime minister, I believe, has asked of the British people in peacetime. I have to say the public have responded magnificently and selflessly, putting their lives on hold, bearing any burden, overcoming any obstacle and tolerating every disruption and inconvenience, no matter how large and small — or inconsistent — so that they could do the right thing by their fellow citizens,” he said.

Too bad No 10 couldn’t do the right thing too.


More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion


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