Boris Johnson survives to party another day
In Parliament on Wednesday, Boris Johnson once again reminded the House of Commons that his Conservative government had “put our arms around the British public” during the covid pandemic. Judging by the latest revelations in the “Partygate” saga, the government has also sitting on the knees of the British public, sprayed red wine on the British public, and vomit on the British public. About an hour before the Prime Minister’s speech, a long-awaited message report on the Downing Street parties, written by senior civil servant Sue Gray, has been published. Lawmakers and their advisers have had just enough time to read the report’s sixty pages – in which Gray gives what she describes as a narrative account of sixteen Downing Street rallies during lockdown restrictions between May 2020 and April 2021 – before reuniting in the chamber to watch the Prime Minister answer questions from the Leader of the Opposition.
Highlights of the report? On May 20, 2020, at a time when gatherings of more than two people were banned indoors or outdoors, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, sent an email inviting recipients to “social distancing aperitifs” in the garden of 10 Downing Street; an adviser sent Reynolds a WhatsApp message reminding him that the rally was due to take place straight after a Downing Street press conference, “so useful if people can be aware of it as the loudspeakers and cameras go off, without walking around waving bottles of wine etc.” (At this press conference Oliver Dowden, then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, informed the public that “you may encounter a outside your household in an outdoor public place, as long as they stay two meters apart.”) On June 18, 2020, at a time when gatherings of more than two people indoors and six outdoors were prohibited unless “reasonably necessary. . . for business purposes,” there was a meeting that continued until the wee hours of the morning, with pizza, prosecco and a karaoke machine; there was also vomiting and “a minor altercation between two. . . individuals”, on December 15, 2020, when the whole country was in lockdown and Christmas parties had been explicitly banned, a festive quiz, with food and alcohol, was organized, after which staff were advised to leave by the rear exit, “in order to prevent staff from being photographed by the press outside. Three days later, a WhatsApp message promised “an exchange of gifts, cheese and (lots) of wine” during a regular Friday afternoon chill-out known around Downing Street as Wine Time Fridays. According to a person interviewed on the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ news programme, Wine Time spear at 4 o’clock PM-not so much happy hour as happy hour and hours and hours, before slipping from behind and tripping over an Uber.
Gray’s overall assessment is stark: she concludes that “at least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to uphold not only the high standards expected of those who work at the heart of government, but also the standards expected of the ‘general British population’. population of the time. Some pungent details that had previously fallen into the public domain did not brighten his story: there was no suitcase filled with wine, although there was a table filled with wine in a small room adjacent to the press office, “which people could help themselves to”. Damage to a garden swing belonging to the Prime Minister’s son, Wilfred Johnson, has been confirmed, although Gray did not remind readers that the swing-damaging festivities took place the day before the The queen sat alone in the Quire of St George’s Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip, who died a few days earlier. The most unpleasant new detail — aside from the digital trail of messages flippantly referring to “drinks that aren’t drinks” and “drinks (which we seem to have gotten rid of)” — is a revelation of disrespectful treatment of Downing Street guards and cleaners, who either tried to shut down the parties or were later forced to clean up the sordid mess. Nothing says silly privilege like civil servants treating service personnel uncivilly.
There are a handful of photos in the report, some of which had been leaked to the press in previous days. Several were taken during a departure for Lee Cain, the former director of communications, who had, according to Gray’s report, warned that Downing Street’s preferred method of venting was not pretty: “I applaud the gesture, but a 200-the invitation from a strange person for a drink in the garden of No 10 is somewhat of a communication hazard in today’s environment,” he wrote to Reynolds, in May 2020. Cain stands out from the Gray report as having offered perhaps the only voice of caution amid the alcoholic recklessness of his colleagues. In his account of that garden party bring a bottle, Gray writes: “Lee Cain informed investigation that he had attended the event for a brief period to determine who was present in the garden.” After leaving Downing Street, Cain set up his own public relations company, having clearly made himself his first client In any case, the caution has apparently been removed for the Cain’s going away party, where Johnson was seen raise a glass in the middle of a crowd of other celebrants. In order to preserve their anonymity, the images of the other participants had been pixelated, so that with their soft outlines and blurred features, they looked more like they might appear to you if you extended Wine Time Friday to Wine Time Early Saturday Morning, and had inadvertently fallen on a child’s swing.
The report, while utterly damning, contains little that we didn’t already know, thanks to a series of grim stories told in the press during the dark days of Omicron’s debut. Back then when it seemed like catching covid It wasn’t a matter of if but when, one of the best ways to get through his harrowing quarantine days was to try to keep up to date with the cascade of bad news for Johnson and the government. (Remember that time he bowed his head in shame at having to apologize to the Queen by squeezing her fat red face as tightly as he could behind a surgical mask?) For a moment, Johnson’s days seemed numbered. Inundated with angry emails and calls from voters who had been forced to forgo larger farewell gatherings than Lee Cain’s – such as deathbed farewells and funerals of beings dear – backbench MPs decided to register their disapproval of Johnson and force a vote of no confidence, in what became briefly and irresistibly known as the Pork Pie Plot, because of one of frontrunners, Alicia Kearns, being the MP for Melton Mowbray, famous for its meat and baked goods.
These subversive rumbles were hushed up when the Metropolitan Police, having determined weeks earlier that they were not going to investigate Downing Street’s lockdown social calendar, belatedly decided they would take a look. after all. A total of 126 fines were issued to people who worked in Downing Street, including the Prime Minister, who was only fined for one of the gatherings investigated by police – a surprise party of the fifty-sixth birthday that his wife, Carrie Johnson, instigated on June 19, 2020. (A few weeks earlier, Johnson had sent a handwritten letter, on Downing Street letterhead, to a seven-year-old girl years named Josephine, who had written to tell him that she had canceled his birthday party in order to respect covid rules; he told her warmly that “you are setting a great example” and tweeted “#BeLikeJosephine.”) His involvement in several other events – including the infamous Reynolds case – was apparently determined by police to have reached the threshold of being necessary at work, at least while the Prime Minister was present, even if they caused it to degenerate into vomiting carnage in the wee hours of the morning.
It was this defense that Johnson turned to in the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying he had humbly accepted the assessment of Sue Gray – who, when Johnson later spoke at a press conference , was repeatedly mentioned by first name only, a tactic that careful observers of the power of language to confer and remove status might question. But he implicitly refuted Gray’s suggestion that there had been leadership failures in Downing Street. He claimed that on the contrary, thanking staff and boosting morale is “one of the essential duties of leadership”. (Perhaps the famous “beer test” applied to political candidates should be replaced by the “wine test”: who busts the cheap asshole with the most aplomb?) Shortly after the Prime minister made his statement on the report and reaffirmed his absolute determination to continue to lead the country, the benches on both sides of the House, but especially on the Conservative side, were largely emptied, with MPs retiring to their offices, or the tea rooms, or one of the eight bars of the House of Commons. It looked like Johnson had survived again. In the end, after all the delays, leaks and anticipation, Sue Gray’s report was more like a bottle of prosecco left open for several hours on a Wine Time Friday table: still potent enough to get you pounding, but wanly depleted of his fizz.