For Sue Gray, investigating the seemingly endless parties held in Downing Street during lockdown must be rather like painting the Forth bridge.
You may recall that when Boris Johnson set up the inquiry, led initially by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case (until we discovered he was himself a rebellious reveller), it was just a case of a few isolated incidents of small “gatherings”, maybe round a desk at the end of an exhausting day saving the nation, with a few glasses of wine and a socially distanced chat about the latest developments on the vaccine or how to help small businesses get through the crisis.
“Work events”; regrettable but isolated incidents; the prime minister naturally not involved, and “sickened” when he found about them; integrity of seat of government not in doubt. Those were our assumptions.
Now it turns out that “Downing It” Street and the adjoining Cabinet Office were party central – a non-stop, booze-fuelled, funkadelic, superspreading knees-up. A veritable festival of hypocrisy. They were partying, as has been well noted, while the Queen and many others were scrupulously obeying the rules and conducting lonely funerals, for example – for which No 10 has now apologised, directly to Buckingham Palace.
Yet apology or not, the image of the Queen – alone in a pew at the service for Prince Philip – strikes an unhappy contrast with the picture we’re forming of activities among the bright young things at No 10. At the latest-to-be-discovered parties in April 2021, the drink was brought in in a suitcase for the thirsty spads and civil servants who were busy getting down. They might as well have renamed their Whitehall offices the Ministry of Sound.
Someone even broke little Wilf’s swing. Hardly the last days of Rome, but a poignant detail all the same. The two noisy parties held that evening merged and splurged, inevitably, out into the Downing Street garden, and one shudders to imagine what those present might have got up to in the shrubbery. One of the “gatherings” was hosted by James Slack, the director of communications, supposedly the chap in charge of image-making. He should have known better, and has duly apologised.
As Angela Eagle, the Labour MP with an impressively arid sense of humour, pointed out the other day in the Commons: “Perhaps it would be faster if Sue Gray were to investigate the days when there were not parties.”
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Depressingly, the spin coming out of Downing Street – they just cannot help themselves – is that Gray will conclude that the party attended by Johnson in the garden of No 10 on 20 May 2020, the one he was forced to fess up to, wasn’t illegal, despite the fact that about 30 people were gathered together without being engaged in any key work beyond eating picnic eggs and getting through the rioja. Hey ho.
It does look like a large consignment of whitewash has been sent in to Whitehall to protect the prime minister. Maybe Johnson will throw a little soirée to celebrate getting away with it again.
No matter. The public have long since made their minds up about Johnson, his gang, and the culture over which he presides – sleazy, selfish, entitled. Even if Gray completely exonerates him as no more than “unwise”, he will still be seen for what he is: a symbol of the “one rule for them, one rule for us” attitude, the very opposite of the ideal of public service symbolised by the Queen.
No amount of whitewash can cover the stain he leaves on public life. What most people want isn’t lame excuses and non-apologies, but regime change in Downing Street. It might not take long.