I tried to imagine how I would have felt if I had still worked at 10 Downing Street, if I had been invited to the now infamous garden party in May 2020. Within minutes, I’m pretty sure one of my team would have erupted in disbelief when they received a “BYOB” invitation, when other citizens were ordered to crawl into their homes. The fact that only about 40 guests attended a party planned for 100 indicates that many of its staff had more decency and better judgment than the Prime Minister.
Downing Street is a cramped home with no air conditioning. It would have been sobbing on May 20th – and I would have expected staff in the garden to take breaks. But upon receiving the email about a party, one of us would surely have asked Martin Reynolds, the chief private secretary who sent it, who on earth our dear leader thought he was doing. For it is inconceivable that an e-mail from the civil servant in that role was not sent on the direct instruction of the Prime Minister. That’s how it works.
Do “party holes” really agree with the ERM crisis or the Iraq war, episodes that helped bring down John Major and Tony Blair respectively? Many voters think all politicians are hypocrites, and Johnson is continuing Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating the case, could not refute his claim that he thought the May 20 event was a “job”.
But as the parties pile up – including the latest confirmation of a drink in 2021 – they must be fatal because they are crystallizing something bigger: the arrogant way Johnson managed his premiership. The lack of integrity over everything from the Northern Ireland Protocol to his attempt to prorogate Parliament, to the disregard of 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 has imposed a draconian restraint on the public. It was a government on a mission to spread fear – so much so that one concerned senior adviser told me, in the summer of 2020, that one third of the public had become what he called “phobias”. The mental health consequences of that strategy is only now beginning to emerge, but it is appalling.
The rules were applied by the police who in some cases apparently had excessive pleasure in threatening the public. That March, Derbyshire Police has released a video of two people walking their dog in the expansive open spaces of the Peak District, warning that it is 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 the key to what happens next. One of the things that bothered me about the Downing Street parties is why officers who should have seen them did nothing. So ubiquitous are the brave officers guarding the building, staff members sometimes groaning that their tastes (chips and buttocks) dominate the menu of the small canteen. By holding a party, the prime minister was putting the police in a difficult position – to fine members of the public for sitting on a park bench but turning a blind eye over goat tables in the rose garden be set up. The Metropolitan Police have so far refused to investigate, but are now considering doing so. The Good Law Project, a campaign group, instituted formal legal action against them.
This is what happens to Johnson: he pollutes the people and institutions that come into his orbit. Do you remember the video of his press secretary Allegra Stratton shrinking as she tries to work out what on earth she can say when journalists ask about a party she herself had the good sense to avoid? The mental gymnastics needed to keep getting Johnson out of scratch is humiliating – for his staff, his ministers, his party and now the police, whose constitutional independence is a cornerstone of our democracy.
The casualties are increasing. Stratton resigned. Former Brexit minister Lord David Frost, a man who owes his political career to Johnson, has jumped off the bandwagon. So does 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 considering their next step. If Johnson continues to vote almost as badly as Theresa May did just before her death, they will conclude that a new face is needed to beat Labor leader Keir Starmer. When the leadership competition finally begins, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, the current favorites, will have to shake off the taste of service in this cabinet. Sunak felt the need to pay an urgent visit to Ilfracombe in Devon rather than sit behind Johnson when he apologized to the House of Commons.
Outsiders may find it easier to demand integrity. Jeremy Hunt, who lost to Johnson in the 2019 leadership competition, has gained in stature since becoming chairman of the health selection committee. So did Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the select foreign affairs committee. Sajid Javid only re-entered the government last year, after resigning as chancellor rather than having 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 malice that throws blame wherever it is useful. 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 snuck home. Good civil servants believe that they are serving the office of Prime Minister, not just the individual. The problem is that this prime minister damaged the office.