News from Nowhere: Party’s Over
Despite all evidence pointing at Boris Johnson's wrongdoings, right-wing media outlets still portray him as "innocent".
A house without books is a home without a soul. As I survey these shelves loaded with a copious collection of kitsch porcelain figures, rich treasures which stand where hardbacks and paperbacks might once have vied for space, I am forced to wonder what joy, wonder or wisdom their proud owners hope they may bring.
Their three-piece suite is chintz and pristine. Their doilies are crafted in the daintiest lace and only ever to be used if royalty comes round to tea. These trophies of Albion are cherished like the totems of their household gods. A framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher embossed in gilt with the Iron Lady's facsimile autograph takes pride of place on the mantlepiece between pictures of their grandchildren, a minor shrine to the glories of their Tory youth. For this is the dispiriting vista of Daily Mail land. This is Little England.
Nothing ever changes here. This place is caught in its nostalgia for an imagined past, a golden age that never really existed, like an insect trapped in amber, the iridescence of its wings an illusion of the amber itself.
The Daily Mail, like one of those Victorian figurines, reflects back upon Middle England the reassuring reinforcement of its petit-bourgeois perspectives, its certainties as to the propriety of the social order, the priority of property, the customs and conventions of established culture, its sense of the immaculate and immutable nature of a timeless Englishness burnished by the tricks of history and memory.
This is a realm that should have been rocked by reports as to the repeated transgressions of its disingenuous clown of a political figurehead. Yet it is one which, despite its avowed faith in conservative traditions and old-fashioned values, has allowed itself to be persuaded by the material self-interest of its masters in the media and the monied classes to ignore concerns as to that current leader’s utter lack of decency, integrity, honesty, and honour.
Earlier this month, it was announced that London’s Metropolitan Police had completed its inquiries into the series of unlawful parties which had taken place at the heart of British government during periods of national lockdown between May 2020 and April 2021. A total of 126 fines had been issued to 83 people, including the Prime Minister himself.
The scope and scale of this scandal appeared to know no bounds. Downing Street, various ministries and the governing party’s central office were involved. The Prime Minister and his wife had received penalties from the police. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had also been fined. Their party’s former candidate to be mayor of London was implicated. The government’s erstwhile head of ethics was caught up in it. It was reported that she had brought a karaoke machine to one of the parties. The premier’s press team had been filmed making jokes about it. The Leader of the House of Commons had tried to make light of it. Staff had regularly been dispatched to a local supermarket to fill a suitcase with wine. It emerged that the chief civil servant initially running the inquiry had himself breached lockdown rules to party with his colleagues. They had even partied on the eve of the funeral of the man who for more than seventy years had been married to the Queen.
The Prime Minister had at first denied that there had been any parties. He had then denied any rules had been broken. He had then said that, if any rules had been broken, he hadn’t been aware of that at the time. In a display of schoolboy contrition, he had issued highly conditional apologies mixed with mealy-mouthed excuses. Demonstrating, for once, an uncharacteristic degree of consistency, he has steadfastly refused to quit.
Meanwhile, a police investigation has been initiated into footage of the Labour Party leader drinking beer at a work event in April last year. The Labour leader has pledged to resign if issued with a fine. This investigation was instigated following a vitriolic campaign run by the Daily Mail newspaper that the police should open inquiries into what it called ‘Labour’s lies’.
By contrast, the Tory-supporting Mail reported the news of the completion of the police inquiries into the Downing Street parties with the declaration that ‘Boris’ was ‘in the clear’. This was despite the fact that Mr. Johnson had become the first serving British Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for law-breaking while in office. He is also the first British Prime Minister to be subject to a parliamentary investigation on the charge of lying to the House of Commons.
The Mail announced that the police investigation into this culture of widespread and flagrant breaches at the very top of government had been a ‘waste of time’. The right-wing Express took a remarkably similar line, complaining of the ‘waste’ of nearly half a million pounds of public money in the conduct of the inquiry.
The same day, the front page of the left-leaning Daily Mirror – the paper which had originally broken the story at the end of last November – led with a reminder that six months earlier Boris Johnson had insisted that no rules had been broken, but that now 126 fines had been issued to government members and staff for the breaking of those rules.
The completion of the police inquiry made way for the publication of the findings of the government’s own investigation into this scandal. A brief summary version of this report had been published in January. Although (for legal reasons at the time) it had necessarily been short on detail, it had been explicit in its condemnation of the failure of leadership and the culture of professional misconduct which characterised Mr. Johnson’s administration.
Shortly before Sue Gray’s report appeared, The Observer newspaper reported that Boris Johnson was planning to sacrifice the career of the country’s top civil servant in a bid to save his own. This seemed typical of the man’s self-serving spinelessness. In the end, the Cabinet Secretary was not sacked and did not resign. That move might have proven too overt in its hypocrisy even for Johnson’s profoundly duplicitous premiership.
The week of the report’s release, the publication of new photos of Boris Johnson raising a glass and holding court at one of the lockdown parties for which he had not been fined raised fresh questions about the fullness of the police action and caused further discontent amongst his own party. One Tory parliamentarian observed that these pictures showed that members of the government simply were ‘not serious’. That same MP, the chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that these images demonstrated a fundamental lack of leadership which had led to the catastrophic failures of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s impotence in the face of the crisis in Ukraine.
Another Conservative backbencher tweeted an image of a public health poster from the time which showed a Covid patient struggling to breathe beneath the slogan ‘Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules’. Even Mr. Johnson’s current Secretary of State for Transport told the BBC that the pictures had made him angry.
Boris Johnson had previously denied a party had taken place on that date. Johnson’s former Justice Secretary noted that, if this had been ‘a deliberate lie’, he could not see ‘how anybody, including this Prime Minister, can continue’. The former leader of the Scottish Conservatives declared that the premier’s position had become untenable.
The morning after these latest revelations, the ever-loyal Mail was the only mainstream national newspaper not to feature any of these images on its front page. That day, the BBC reported that Downing Street insiders had admitted to participating in weekly lockdown parties which left bins overflowing with rubbish and empty bottles all over the building, dozens crowding together, dancing and crammed so tight they were sitting on each other’s laps, partying so late that some slept in their offices overnight. One Downing Street staff-member had pointed out that the Prime Minister ‘wasn’t saying this shouldn’t be happening. He was grabbing a glass for himself’.
Immediately prior to its release, when news emerged that, despite Johnson’s repeated pledges not to interfere with the inquiry, he had met with its author Sue Gray to discuss her report’s publication, concerns were raised as to its independence. Downing Street claimed that Ms. Gray had requested this meeting. It later emerged that she had not. It was further reported that Mr. Johnson had used this meeting to suggest that she ‘should drop her plans’ to publish. Yet the sceptics need not have worried. Ms. Gray remained scathing in her criticism of the government for which she works.
Her final report’s conclusions did not differ significantly from the summary draft she had released in January. She reiterated her discovery of ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ and emphasized that these events ‘were attended by leaders in government’ and ‘should not have been allowed to happen’. She added that ‘the public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this’.
She stressed that this culture of professional misconduct at the heart of government did not reflect the broader culture of government or the civil service at the time. It was, in other words, uniquely characteristic of Mr. Johnson’s own office, of himself and his closest staff at the top of his administration. It was a culture for which ‘senior leadership’ must ‘bear responsibility’.
She carefully presented the facts of each rule-breaching event in the context of the Covid regulations in force at the time. But she also added flesh, colour and detail to Gray’s initial findings. She noted that, at one gathering in May 2020, ‘the Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his flat’. She observed an unacceptable ‘lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff’ whose concerns had been dismissed by more senior staff. The timings she specified for the duration of the Prime Minister’s presence at these events was not always consistent with what he had previously claimed. She also provided nine photographs of Boris Johnson having fun at these parties which he’d once said had not taken place.
Ms. Gray reported that, during the planning of one event in May 2020, one of the Prime Minister’s special advisors had reminded his Principal Private Secretary that a press conference would be finishing at around the time the party was scheduled. He suggested it would therefore be ‘helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine’. Downing Street’s Director of Communications had also warned that ‘a 200 odd person invitation for drinks in the garden of No 10 is somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment’. The Principal Private Secretary later messaged a colleague suggesting they had ‘got away with’ their illicit gathering.
Sue Gray’s description of a Cabinet Office party in June 2020 is particularly striking: ‘Some brought pizza and prosecco. A karaoke machine was set up in an adjoining office. 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.’
She also noted that ‘members of the Press Office have, for some time, 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 to the main Press Office and people could help themselves.’ This practice had started before the pandemic and continued through it.
She reported the events of one Downing Street gathering during a period of strict lockdown in January 2021: ‘The event began at around 18.00. Approximately 15 members of staff attended in person. The Prime Minister attended for around ten minutes. Following the speeches while some people left, others remained and continued to chat and drink. It is unclear what time the event finished. We were informed at least some of those present were there beyond 23.00.’
She described the aftermath of a further Downing Street drinks party in April 2021: ‘A number of individuals gathered near a child’s swing in the garden, damaging it by leaning on and playing with it.’ The final partygoer left at 4.20 the following morning. That was just ten hours before the funeral of Prince Philip, husband to the Queen.
The moral force of these facts seems irresistible. As the BBC’s political editor put it, ‘you can almost smell the quantity of alcohol drunk at these parties in government when parties were banned.’
Boris Johnson addressed the House of Commons last Wednesday afternoon to respond to Sue Gray’s report. He apologized for attending what he called the ‘short lunchtime gathering’ for which he had been fined. He said that he took ‘full responsibility’ for these misdemeanours, before going on to trot out his usual denials and excuses. He insisted that he had not sought to mislead parliament, and that he had only attended these gatherings briefly and therefore had ‘no knowledge of subsequent proceedings’. He argued, quite shamelessly, that these lockdown-breaching parties represented an ‘appropriate’ way to recognize the work of his colleagues – ‘people working extremely long hours’ – in Downing Street.
The chair of parliament’s standards committee however pulled few punches when he denounced Mr. Johnson’s response as a ‘load of baloney’ and condemned his office as a ‘cesspit full of arrogant entitled narcissists’.
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition meanwhile welcomed Sue Gray’s report as ‘a monument to the hubris and arrogance’ of an administration which ‘treated the sacrifice of the British people with utter contempt’. The Prime Minister replied that the Labour leader had developed a ‘sanctimonious obsession’ with these controversies. It was almost as if, with this derisive and dismissive riposte, he was trying to prove Mr. Starmer quite right. One BBC correspondent noted that Johnson’s bullish performance in the House on Wednesday may not have been what his own MPs, expecting a show of humility, had in truth wanted to hear.
Indeed, that day, some Tory backbenchers demonstrated that they still had the spine to step out of line. One asked if Johnson if he’d lied to parliament. Another said that he no longer supported the Prime Minister and asked his fellow Conservatives how long they would be willing to defend their leader’s conduct. However, most of his party, publicly at least, rallied to his support.
And so, the UK’s mother of all parliaments settled down again for its afternoon nap. The normal order of business started to reassert itself. The Prime Minister had once more lived to fight another day. The nation’s least popular never-ending Tory went on to convene a press conference where he repeated the same old waffle. He reiterated that he believed that these parties he had attended had been ‘work events’ and that he had not therefore broken any rules.
One journalist pointed out that he had, that day in parliament, avoided answering a question as to whether he had attempted to suppress Sue Gray’s report, and asked Mr. Johnson if he would like to set the record straight on that. The Prime Minister again in his press conference failed to answer that question. He just said that it had been inevitable that the report would be published and that he thought it was ‘entirely right’ that it had been. That key question remained unanswered. Nobody seemed particularly surprised.
When repeatedly asked if he’d ever considered resigning, he became impatient with the reporter who was pressing him for an answer and said once more that he could only ‘repeat his point’.
The Prime Minister then made a joke about his own ‘natural generosity of soul’. Nobody laughed. It remained unclear whether he was sincere in his claims to be taking this situation seriously.
He asserted yet again to the nation’s press that he now wanted to move on and move forward, and British democracy sank further into the mire of his own making.
The next trial for Boris Johnson – if his political career survives so long – will be the parliamentary investigation into whether he had in fact lied to the House of Commons. If found to have lied, he would be expected to resign.
Last December, a Labour MP had asked Mr. Johnson: ‘Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?’ Mr. Johnson had replied: ‘No.’
We now know there was a party which he attended that day. But might the premier now claim that his response was not a denial that there had been a party but simply a refusal to tell the House?
That month, Johnson had also told parliament that he had ‘been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party’. Again, he had not denied there was a party: he had simply said that someone had told him there was not.
He had also stated, in answer to the Leader of the Opposition’s question as to whether there had been a party that day, that ‘all guidance was followed completely’. As usual, he’d wriggled his way out of providing a direct (and directly incriminating) response.
But does this count as ‘knowingly misleading’ parliament? Can the House really brand him a liar? He had of course been clearer and more brazen in his attempts to deceive the media, but, for a British politician, that is not necessarily a resigning matter.
It appears he may have chosen his words with greater care when addressing the Commons, aware of the price of getting caught out in a direct lie. There are those in the Conservative Party and the British electorate who may now regret having failed to ensure that they themselves took a similar degree of care when they had come in 2019 to select their leader and their Prime Minister.
There may even come a time, when swayed by the sense of its readers and by the glaring inevitability of the facts, the Daily Mail might itself start to have second thoughts. Yes, maybe, definitely maybe – but most probably not today.
The day after the publication of Sue Gray’s report, four more Conservative MPs bravely broke ranks to call on their leader to quit. That morning, The Guardian newspaper reported that Mr. Johnson had supposed that drinking, vomiting and fighting were ‘all in a day’s work’. The Mirror lamented the fact that Number 10 had been ‘laughing at us all’. The Times argued that the Prime Minister had again evaded ‘moral accountability’ and had hidden behind ‘legalistic quibbling’. In a stark contrast, the Daily Mail depicted Gray’s findings as ‘innocuous’ and as something of a ‘damp squib’.
I should therefore not have been at all surprised when a right-wing friend of mine told me that day that the Partygate controversies had been blown out of all proportion. That, after all, was what his paper had said.
The traumas of the coronavirus crisis have already begun to generate in their immediate wake something of a collective amnesia which diminishes and trivialises their tragedies. It is as if the horrors of our recent history have grown too painful to recall. More than 175,000 people have died of Covid-19 since Spring 2020 in the UK alone. That figure represents a higher average annual death toll than, say, that suffered by Britain in the course of the Second World War, and dwarves the 40,000 civilians who died during the eight months of the Blitz.
The Prime Minister’s supporters keep demanding that we put our outrage at his actions into some sort of reasonable context. So, let’s do so. A comparable scandal – an equivalent and similarly perilous betrayal of trust – would perhaps have been if Winston Churchill had in early 1941 been caught flouting London’s blackout laws, lighting bonfires in the Downing Street garden to guide the Luftwaffe’s bombs towards Westminster. I told my Mail-reading friend he might do well to remember that.
And there’s another thing we must not forget about the pandemic. It’s not over yet.