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The Sue Gray Report: The Rotten Heart of a Political Culture

The ‘Partygate’ scandal represents a systemic failure of multiple British institutions – with the fault not solely lying with Boris Johnson, says Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2022. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

THE SUE GRAY REPORTThe Rotten Heart of a Political Culture

The ‘Partygate’ scandal represents a systemic failure of multiple British institutions – with the fault not solely lying with Boris Johnson, says Jonathan Lis

The ink has been dry on the Sue Gray report for only a few days and already the media has begun to move on.

There was little we hadn’t already guessed and no ‘smoking gun’.

The arguably most serious incident – Boris Johnson’s apparent ‘ABBA party’ in the Downing Street flat after the departure of Dominic Cummings – warranted no investigation at all. Mysteriously, Chancellor Rishi Sunak chose the day after the report’s publication to introduce major new assistance to tackle the cost of living crisis.

And yet, ‘Partygate’ is not over, in any sense. Substantively, Johnson still faces an investigation by the House of Commons’ Privileges Committee about his statements to Parliament. Politically, his party continues to lag in the polls, with voters expected to punish the Conservatives in two forthcoming by-elections. Ethically, he is beyond redemption.

The Sue Gray report does not merely expose the lack of principle and integrity in the man entrusted to lead us – he exposed that himself long ago. It also lays bare the decay throughout an entire state architecture.

A Culture of Impunity

A broad sweep of Sue Gray’s report emerged at the end of January, before the Metropolitan Police began its investigation into various lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In her initial findings, the civil servant judged “a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time”.

She further declared that there had been “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10”.

Given that the ultimate responsibility for the leadership of No 10 lies with the man who lives there, this marked an implicit condemnation of Boris Johnson himself. Crucially, Gray’s initial conclusions cut through all of the Prime Minister’s excuses: that his role is not simply to observe the behavioural norms of the general population, but to set an example for it. Johnson failed to do either.

The full report reveals more detail of wrongdoing.

Contrary to what the Prime Minister always insisted, it makes clear that the guidance was not, in fact, followed. There were drunken parties long into the night; the Deputy Cabinet Secretary arrived at one with a karaoke machine; cleaners and security staff were treated with “a lack of respect” on multiple occasions; red wine was splashed up the walls of the heart of Government.

Officials’ private communications did not reveal the slightest concern about law-breaking, still less the risk of actually spreading a lethal virus – only the fear of how it might look. They did not care about following the laws they made; they cared only about getting caught.

But this was never principally about the officials. Culture is set from the top. And Sue Gray affirmed that “senior leadership must bear responsibility”. The only action Johnson has taken is to move some of his staff out of their jobs.  


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The Man at the Top

What do we learn about Boris Johnson from the report? The short answer is nothing we did not already know.

At no time has he shown any sense of duty or respect for his position. In response to the report’s publication he first claimed that he was “humbled”, then “vindicated”. For months, he had told people to wait for the inquiry and now it had been delivered it was simply time to move on.

Facing repeated questioning in Parliament, the Prime Minister frequently smirked or looked bored. He did not dispel the perceived lack of gravity – or suggestions of undue influence on the report – by repeatedly referring to the civil servant by her first name alone.

The problem for Johnson is that each new lie demands an elaborate infrastructure to sustain it. Because he needs to maintain the proposition that he did not mislead Parliament, he must pretend never to have known that the events were illegal and never to have sanctioned – even implicitly – their wilder elements. Most preposterous of, in response to the report, he declared that attending leaving events for staff members in person was his duty.

For all this, Johnson relies on the public and media not simply taking him at his word, but responding to the issue on his own terms. It requires people to accept that he was attending ‘work events’ – an exemption that never existed in the law. This has become such an accepted part of ministers’ rhetorical ammunition that few journalists ever observe that it does not exist.

Contrary to Johnson’s claims, large social gatherings were never permitted in workplaces. People were not allowed to have parties in an office through the night just because people had performed essential work there during the day.

Nobody needs a law degree to understand this point. Imagine for one moment a 2020 press conference in which a journalist had asked Johnson whether in-person leaving events could take place. Perhaps, to mark the special occasion, there might be speeches, alcohol and food. Anyone who lived through that period will instinctively know the answer. During lockdown people were not even allowed to attend the funerals of close relatives. The Prime Minister would have emphatically said no and advised people to perform such events online.

Johnson takes us for fools, but we do not have to turn into them.

Given that everything about the COVID-19 lockdown was unprecedented, it is sometimes hard to place Partygate in context. It seems strange to ask how Attlee, Wilson or Thatcher would have responded to illegal parties in Downing Street because parties have never before been illegal. But it is necessary to do so.

Regardless of politics, and without any need for rose-tinted spectacles, previous prime ministers have had a basic sense of honour, duty and integrity. Some may have been narcissists, but they understood their responsibility and strove for something greater than basic self-interest.

This was never just about people eating cake or sandwiches. It was about basic decency and respect; taking a pandemic and laws to fight it seriously; treating the highest office in the land not as a personal amusement or unending vehicle for self-gratification but as an instrument of power to be revered and respected. To accept that the role of Prime Minister is to serve the people, not the other way round.

Boris Johnson not only failed to attain a higher level of behaviour, he even failed to meet the lowest common denominator.

Britain’s Institutions

If this was simply a story about one man, we could seek to isolate both. The problem would be Johnson, and when he finally moves on to his next entertainment, we could remove the cordon sanitaire. But it is not just about Johnson. He sets the national tone and political culture, but he is also enabled by it. Partygate reveals a devastating decay in the heart of key institutions.

First is the Conservative Party.

The number of MPs to have publicly called for Boris Johnson’s resignation currently stands at around 6%. There is no sign that there are enough MPs yet to force a vote of no confidence. The signal is clear: the Prime Minister can preside over industrial law-breaking in a national emergency – even receiving a fine for breaking laws he made – and nothing needs to happen. It does not matter that the Conservatives are basing a calculation on their perceived electoral interests and would happily despatch Johnson if it was opportune – they are content to place self-interest over basic standards in public life.

Then there is the Civil Service.

As former senior civil servant Jill Rutter has noted, civil servants were not simply involved in the law-breaking itself but the cover-up afterwards. Sue Gray was careful to note that not all civil servants participated in this culture, but it is clear that a sizeable element was prepared to degrade itself.

More worrying still is the police.

For months, the Metropolitan Police repeatedly declined to investigate the Downing Street parties. The force then appeared to derail Gray’s inquiry by changing its mind just as Gray was about to release her report. Now the investigation has concluded, it is clear that junior officials have borne the brunt of sanctions, even though their bosses – including the Prime Minister – attended the same events.

Indeed, reports suggest that Johnson was only personally investigated for two events and that the police declined to investigate the ABBA party at all. The former senior police officer Brian Paddick has suggested that the police may have sought to help the Prime Minister and has launched a judicial review.

Finally, there is the media.

While the Daily Mirror and ITV News have driven this story from the beginning, the right-wing press has done everything to trivialise and mock it. Part of that, no doubt, springs from the revolving door between the media and No 10 – one of the illegal parties was, after all, honouring the now deputy editor of the Sun, James Slack. But it is also about naked partisanship.

The Daily Mail, in particular, devoted seven successive front pages to a curry eaten by Labour Leader Keir Starmer during an election campaign. But the day after Gray’s report revealed endemic law-breaking in Johnson’s No 10, the newspaper simply asked ‘Is That It?’. Much of Britain’s media is no longer interested in upholding standards – it solely wishes to defend its team.

Partygate represents a systemic failure of multiple British institutions at the same time. Boris Johnson drove and engineered the contamination, but it goes far beyond him. The poison will linger in the body politic long after he has finally vacated it.

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