A Prime Minister should resign when humiliated by a major policy catastrophe: Suez, the ERM, Iraq. Neither Anthony Eden nor John Major nor Tony Blair did. Does what Sue Gray’s report calls “alleged gatherings on Government property during Covid restrictions” meet that standard?
It refers to 16 events of which 12 were investigated by the Metropolitan Police. Nine of these are not connected with special advisers. The balance of the numbers is a giveaway: most of these gatherings were arranged for and attended by civil servants.
It follows that until or unless we’re told otherwise, we must presume that most of the more lurid details about them relate to civil servants, too: vomiting, spilled wine, bins overflowing with rubbish, rudeness to security staff – with some people staying all night. Mull this detail: on one occasion, the ethics advisor arrived with a karaoke machine.
My take is that junior civil servants should have known the rules, and that senior ones certainly did. Hence the deadly e-mail from the Prime Minister’s former Private Secretary revealed in the report: “we seem to have got away with [our drinks]”, he wrote.
Martin Reynolds was referring to a gathering in Number Ten’s garden in May 2020 at which Johnson was present for perhaps half an hour. The Prime Minister didn’t receive a fixed penalty notice for this event, which he went to voluntarily.
But he did receive one for walking into an event a month later arranged for his birthday and of which he had no notice. How does that make sense? Gray’s report doesn’t linger long on the inconsistencies and mysteries of the Met’s decisions.
Nor does she name and shame Simon Case, the head of the Civil Service (though he is notably visible in photos attached to the report that are mostly pixillated). Nor is she willing to investigate the so-called “Abba party” – the event in the Number Ten Downing Street flat of November 2020.
Her report on the May 2020 gathering is also helpful to the Prime Minister in another respect. “Lee Cain says he subsequently spoke to Martin Reynolds and advised him that the event should be cancelled. Martin Reynolds does not recall any such conversation,” she writes.
“In addition, Dominic Cummings has also said that he too raised concerns, in writing. We have not found any documentary evidence of this,” she says. Essentially, Johnson’s enemies, internal and external, hoped that the police would issue him with multiple fines, and that Gray’s report would damn as the driving force behind the gatherings.
As it is, the Prime Minister has been fined once – enough to ensure that the Met isn’t swamped by accusations of a cover-up; not enough to have stampeded Conservative MPs to have triggered a leadership ballot. Furthermore, Keir Starmer’s pursuit of Johnson has been impeded by Durham Police’s investigation of his own conduct.
And now Gray’s report concludes that “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture”. Had that conclusion followed multiple fines for the Prime Minister, I believe that he would now be facing that elusive ballot.
Or would have done so in the absence of further fines…but with a less bland summing-up from Gray: in terms of tone and conclusions, she tells us little that her interim report earlier did not. In the face of this double disappointment, Johnson’s opponents will giddy up a ding-dong.
The police have been got at! Gray is an establishment patsy! These will be the very same people who applauded the Met for acting retrospectively in the first place. And have been busy defending Gray from inferences that her investigations might not be fair to Johnson, since she has been advised by a “Brexit and Boris hating QC“.
All this may further reinforce the Prime Minister’s secret weapon: boredom. He will doubtless have played the Eton Wall game when at school, in which “two bullies which face up against each other in a scrum-like formation” for a sport which is “notoriously physical”.
“A goal is a particularly rare phenomenon, with only three having been scored in a St Andrew’s Day match in the entire history of Wall Game and none for more than one hundred years,” the college reports. This grinding, attritional, unyielding posture has given Johnson his cue for the Partygate affair, and for much else.
By simply hanging on in there, he has given much of the Parliamentary Party, and a majority of Party members, the time and space in which to become sick and tired of his foes: the Jolyon Maughams and Jessica Simors, Starmer, Ed Davey, the BBC (as some Tory MPs see it) and, above all, Cummings (who many of them detest).
Not that they are enthused by the Prime Minister, either, as their tepid response to him in the Chamber confirmed. But his Conservative critics during the last few days have tended to be been familiar ones: Tobias Ellwood, Roger Gale, Tom Tugendhat. Not much new there.
Perhaps Graham Brady will surprise us all by emerging tomorrow morning to announce that a ballot has been triggered. But I doubt it. And if there is one, the Prime Minister has an advantage: that he has no obvious successor, now that Rishi Sunak is hors de combat.
Johnson will work to move on. He will address the 1922 Committee later this afternoon – and perhaps be more careful this time round to keep a straight face. The Chancellor will rush out a statement to help ease pressures on the cost of living. Case will surely go.
The Prime Minister told the Commons earlier that he had said “what I believed to be true” about those Downing Street gatherings and events. That will be his defence during the Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons. Proving that he deliberately did so will be a high bar for them to clear.
You may say that the police have behaved incomprehensibly, which is true. And that it is deeply unfair that senior civil servants with expensive lawyers have escaped fines while junior ones haven’t – and that the same applies to senior politicians like Johnson. That is right.
But if common sense suggests that he should have been fined for other events, it also says that he shouldn’t have been for the surprise “birthday party”, with or without cake. What the police thought they were doing by fining Sunak, who turned up at the Cabinet Room early for another meeting, goodness only knows.
This afternoon, the “greased albino piglet” is putting further distance between himself and the butchers. Or, if you prefer a non-porcine image, Gulliver is struggling free of the bonds that hold him down. The Prime Minister has an obvious motive for wanting to “move on”. That isn’t to say that he’s wrong in wanting to do so.
There is armed conflict between European states for the first time since 1945. Britain faces the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s. The Government faces the triple legacy of war, Covid and Brexit.
It’s time to bring down the curtain on Partygate, leave the theatre and return to the world outside. Perhaps the Tories are doomed under Johnson and perhaps not. But either way, boredom has come to his aid. “You know me / I’m acting dumb,” the Buzzcocks sang. “You know the scene – very humdrum. Boredom – boredom. Be’dumb, be’dumb.”