Boris Johnson Survives to Party Another Day

In Parliament on Wednesday, Boris Johnson once again reminded the House of Commons that his Conservative government had “put our arms around the British public” during the COVID pandemic. Judging by the latest revelations in the “Partygate” saga, the government also sat in the lap of the British public, sprayed red wine on the British public, and threw up on the British public. About an hour before the Prime Minister spoke, a long-awaited report on the Downing Street parties, written by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, was published. Lawmakers and their advisers had just enough time to read through the report’s sixty pages—in which Gray gives what she describes as a narrative account of sixteen gatherings at Downing Street during lockdown restrictions between May, 2020, and April, 2021—before they assembled in the chamber to watch the Prime Minister face questions from the Leader of the Opposition.

Report highlights? On May 20, 2020, at a time when gatherings of more than two people were prohibited indoors or outside, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, sent an e-mail inviting recipients to “socially-distanced drinks” in the garden of 10 Downing Street; an adviser sent Reynolds a WhatsApp message reminding him that the gathering was scheduled to take place just after a Downing Street press conference, “so helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine, etc.” (At that press conference, Oliver Dowden, then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, informed the public that “you can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place, provided that you stay two metres apart.”) On June 18, 2020, at a time when gatherings of more than two people indoors and six outdoors were prohibited unless they were “reasonably necessary . . . for work purposes,” there was a get-together that went on until the small hours of the morning, featuring pizza, prosecco, and a karaoke machine; there was also vomiting and “a minor altercation between two . . . individuals,” On December 15, 2020, when the entire country was in lockdown and Christmas parties had been explicitly forbidden, a festive quiz, with food and alcohol, was held, after which staff were advised to leave via the back exit, “in order to avoid staff being photographed by the press outside.” Three days later, a WhatsApp message promised “gift exchange and cheese and (lots of) wine” at a regular Friday-afternoon wind-down session known around Downing Street as Wine Time Fridays. According to an interviewee on the BBC’s “Panorama” news program, Wine Time kicked off at 4 P.M.—not so much Happy Hour as Happy Hours and Hours and Hours, Before Slipping Out the Back Way and Stumbling Into an Uber.

Gray’s over-all assessment is unvarnished: she concludes that “at least some of the gatherings in question represent 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.” Some piquant details that had earlier made it into the public domain did not enliven her narrative: there was no wine-filled suitcase, though there was a wine-filled table in a small room adjacent to the press office, “from which people could help themselves.” The damage to a garden swing belonging to the Prime Minister’s toddler son, Wilfred Johnson, was confirmed, though Gray did not remind her readers that those swing-damaging revelries had taken place the evening before the Queen sat alone in the Quire of St. George’s Chapel during the funeral for Prince Philip, who had died a few days earlier. The most distasteful new detail—apart from the digital trail of messages referring with a wink-nudge glibness to “drinks that aren’t drinks” and “drinks (which we seem to have got away with)”—is a revelation of disrespectful treatment toward Downing Street custodians and cleaners, who had either tried to shut the parties down or had been obliged afterward to clean the sordid messes up. Nothing says oafish privilege like civil servants treating service staff uncivilly.

There are a handful of photos in the report, some of which had been leaked to the press in the preceding days. Several were taken at a leaving do for Lee Cain, the former director of communications, who had, Gray’s report reveals, warned that Downing Street’s preferred method of letting off steam was not a good look: “I applaud the gesture—but a 200-odd person invitation for drinks in the garden of No 10 is somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment,” he wrote to Reynolds, in May, 2020. Cain emerges from the Gray report as having offered perhaps the only voice of caution amid the boozy carelessness of his colleagues. In her account of that bring-a-bottle garden party, Gray writes, “Lee Cain informed the investigation that he attended the event for a brief period to ascertain who was present in the garden.” After leaving Downing Street, Cain has gone on to form his own P.R. company, having clearly made himself his own first client. In any case, caution was apparently dispensed with for Cain’s departure party, where Johnson was seen raising a glass amid a crowd of other celebrants. In order to preserve their anonymity, other attendees’ images had been pixelated, so that, with their hazy outlines and blurred features, they looked rather like they might appear to you if you’d extended Wine Time Friday into Wine Time Early Saturday Morning, and had taken an inadvertent tumble off a child’s swing.

The report, while utterly damning, contains little that we didn’t already know, thanks to a series of lurid stories chronicled in the press during the dark days of early Omicron. Back then, when it seemed that catching COVID was not a question of if but when, one of the best ways to while away one’s tiresome days of quarantine was to try to keep on top of the cascade of bad news for Johnson and the government. (Remember that time when he hung his head in shame at having to apologize to the Queen while squeezing as much as he could manage of his big red face behind a surgical mask?) For a while, Johnson’s days seemed numbered. Inundated by angry e-mails and calls from constituents who had been forced to forgo more consequential farewell gatherings than Lee Cain’s—such as deathbed goodbyes and funerals of loved ones—backbenchers moved to register their disapproval of Johnson and to force a vote of no confidence, in what became briefly and irresistibly known as the Pork Pie Plot, on account of one of the ringleaders, Alicia Kearns, being the M.P. for Melton Mowbray, famous for its meat-and-pastry products.

Those subversive rumblings were quelled when the Metropolitan Police, having determined weeks earlier that they were not going to investigate Downing Street’s lockdown social calendar, decided, belatedly, that they would have a look into it after all. In all, a hundred and twenty-six fines were issued to individuals who worked at Downing Street, including the Prime Minister, who was fined for only one of the gatherings that the police investigated—a surprise fifty-sixth-birthday party that his wife, Carrie Johnson, instigated on June 19, 2020. (A few weeks earlier, Johnson had sent a handwritten letter, on Downing Street stationery, to a seven-year-old girl named Josephine, who had written to tell him that she had cancelled her birthday party in order to adhere to COVID rules; he warmly told her that “you are setting a great example,” and tweeted “#BeLikeJosephine.”) His attendance at several other events—including the infamous Reynolds affair—was, apparently, determined by police to have met the threshold of being necessary for work, at least while the Prime Minister was present, even if they did degenerate into vomitous carnage by the small hours of the morning.

It was that defense to which Johnson turned in the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying that he humbly accepted the assessment of Sue Gray—who, when Johnson later spoke at a press conference, he repeatedly referred to by her first name only, a tactic that close observers of the power of language to confer and remove status might wonder at. But he implicitly refuted Gray’s suggestion that there had been failures of leadership at Downing Street. He claimed that, on the contrary, thanking staff and boosting morale is “one of the essential duties of leadership.” (Perhaps the notorious “beer test” that’s applied to political candidates should be updated to the “wine-pouring test”: Who pops the cheap plonk with the greatest aplomb?) Not long after the Prime Minister made his statement on the report and reaffirmed his absolute determination to get on with the business of running the country, the benches on both sides of the House, but especially on the Conservatives’ side, were largely emptied out, with M.P.s retiring to their offices, or the tearooms, or one of the eight bars in the House of Commons. It looked like Johnson had survived again. In the end, after all the delays and the leaks and the anticipation, the Sue Gray report was rather like a bottle of prosecco that had been left open for several hours on a Wine Time Friday table: still potent enough to get you hammered, but wanly depleted of its fizz.

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