Boris Johnson, the party animal, vomited on the standards of public life | Andrew Rawnsley
PImagine the sordid scene cleaning staff faced the morning after a night of drunken delinquency by Downing Street residents. Wine stains on the walls. Patient pools. Empty overflowing bins. Mounds of party trash on the floor. The heart of government, the place where soberness was most hoped for amid the pandemic, has turned into a vomit-splattered nightclub. The only heroes in Sue Gray’s Partygate investigation are the security staff who suffered abuse when they tried to break up illegal gatherings and the cleaners who had to clean up.
Now try to imagine scenes of drinking, vomiting, punching, vandalism and breaking the law all night at number 10 under any other prime minister. You can not. Nothing like this happened under any of Boris Johnson‘s predecessors. The character of organizations is immensely influenced by the example set by the person at the top. When that person is Mr Johnson, you get a culture of selfish, arrogant, authoritative, amoral and narcissistic rule-breaking that combines, in the true spirit of the Bullingdon Club, snobbery and yobbery.
It wasn’t just the fabric of the building that was ransacked during its occupation – it was the reputation of high office that it despoiled. This is understood by many more Tory MPs than the minority who called him out. Ask them why they don’t then exercise their power to impeach him and some will tell you it’s because the Gray report “lacks compelling evidence.”
Seriously, guys? How many “smoking guns” do you need? Many parties took place in Downing Street during some of the deadliest waves of the pandemic when lockdown rules were at their toughest. They were often initiated or assisted by the most experienced people in the building. We have a photo of the prime minister, standing next to a table laden with bottles of wine and spirits, at one of the parties he has repeatedly sworn in parliament never to have taken place. I challenge him to try his latest laughable alibi that it was part of his ‘leadership role’ to join drunken backs for departing staff, facing anyone who was forbidden to hold hands of a dying loved one. Eighty-three people have admitted breaking lockdown rules at Downing Street. A total of 126 fines were issued, making Number 10 the most Covid-breaking address in the country.
Not only were they flouting the law, but the Gray report provides plenty of evidence that they knew they were doing it. A manager advised attendees at a Christmas party to leave through the back door to avoid being spotted by photographers. A special adviser has warned colleagues to be careful not to be seen “walking around waving bottles of wine etc. before a rally, as it was due to occur immediately after a televised press conference at which the public was urged to abide by the Covid rules. Another Downing Street staff member sent an email referring to ‘your drinks that are not drinks’. One of the building’s spin-docs worries that the famous “bring your own booze party” is “somewhat of a communication risk.” The organizer of that rally, Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, later sends a WhatsApp message saying “we seem to have got away with it”.
That is the philosophy of Downing Street under the sordid leadership of Mr Johnson. See what you can get away with. His life motto turned into the degenerate belief of number 10.
The Gray report is also a strong indictment of the officials involved. Mr. Reynolds, otherwise known as “Party Marty”, is supposed to be our next man in Riyadh. Sending him to sober Saudi Arabia, which takes a hard line against illegal drinking, would show the Foreign Office has a sense of humor. Many others wonder why he is still pursuing a career in public service. The same question is posed to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary. This role has traditionally required the ability to “speak truth to power”, to warn ministers, including the prime minister, when they cross lines. Yet either Mr. Case was too weak to challenge such repugnant conduct, or he was complicit in the lewd culture that the Gray report rightly denounces. Surely the only reason Mr. Case and Mr. Reynolds are still receiving taxpayer-funded salaries is because they can’t be cut without making it even more outrageous that Mr. Johnson is still in office.
As long as he hangs on to it, we can already be clear about one of the defining legacies of his premiership. This is the dustbin of history for the “good guy theory of government”. The phrase was coined by Peter Hennessy, the eminent historian, to describe the belief that Britain could get by with unwritten conventions of how politicians should behave, rather than a firm set of rules , because our politics were peopled with honorable characters on whom we could count. to do the right thing. If this theory were true, it was tested to destruction by the thug who still squats number 10, despite being a lawbreaker who has repeatedly told lies to Parliament. We must now embrace a “bad type of government theory,” which assumes that some politicians will behave abominably unless they are prevented from doing so by robust laws that are vigorously enforced.
I don’t have space to list all the things that will need to be done to sanitize our public life once the Johnson regime is gone. Today, I will highlight three particularly essential reforms. Ministerial and civil service codes must be strengthened and their policing entrusted to independent hands. Ad hoc investigations, set up to try to deflect pressure and conducted by officials, are not satisfactory.
As a civil servant, Ms Gray could not judge whether the prime minister and cabinet secretary, her bosses, are fit to continue in office. The Independent Advisor for Ministerial Interests, the post currently held by Christopher Geidt, is also out of place. He can only investigate code breaches with the permission of the Prime Minister, who can simply overrule the adviser’s verdicts, as Mr Johnson did when the previous adviser found Priti Patel guilty of bullying. Evidence may be hidden from the Councillor, as Lord Geidt discovered when he attempted to investigate Wallpapergate. The remedy is to implement the proposal of the committee on standards in public life when it made 34 sound recommendations to improve the integrity of government. We must have a truly independent overseer of ministerial conduct with the power to initiate investigations, compel the production of evidence, and publish findings in full without interference from Number 10.
Money talks in politics. The disgrace of Owen Paterson, the Greensill affair and the Covid contract scandal demonstrate that the rules on influence peddling and conflicts of interest are too weak and that there is far too little transparency on who is doing pressure on the government. There are guidelines on what business jobs politicians and civil servants can do after they leave government, but the watchdog is powerless. This overseer must be armed with legal powers and meaningful penalties against offenders.
MPs must reaffirm the fundamental principle that ministers who knowingly deceive Parliament must resign. The House of Commons only got part of the way by referring Mr Johnson to the Privileges Committee. Even if this Conservative-majority body finds him guilty of lying to Parliament, there is no guarantee he won’t try to hang on.
Stricter laws and enforcement will help purge our politics of unethical behavior. It is all the more essential that there be a change of culture so that the star of parliamentary and ministerial life does not see what is wrong, but probity. It has to be led from above, so it will obviously never happen while Mr Johnson is still around. He waited until MPs had left Westminster for the holidays before publishing a rewritten and watered down version of the ministerial code which removed from the foreword the previous injunction for members of government to behave with honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability. . Just when you think he can no longer degrade the standards of public life, this shameless prime minister is going to prove you wrong.
You can wipe wine stains from the walls and wipe vomit from the carpet. It’s our government institutions that will need a deep clean once the number 10 party animal is finally out with the trash.