Boris Johnson’s Downing Street indulged in excessive drinking and parties while gathering was illegal – but is there enough evidence against the PM personally?
First published: May 2022.
After months of delay and speculation, civil servant Sue Gray has published her report into Downing Street parties. It does not make for comfortable reading. Although it could have been much, much worse for the prime minister, overall the report states that senior leadership must “bear responsibility” for the numerous lockdown breaches that took place in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Gray stops short of declaring whether individual events did or didn’t breach the rules. Nevertheless, her findings are damning and there is ample evidence on offer for any reader looking to make up their own mind about what happened. These are the five top takeaways from Gray’s final findings.
1. An undeniable culture of parties and drinking
The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff.
Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party in the garden that it was best to avoid “waving bottles of wine etc” because a press conference was finishing up.
Whether or not you believe the “ambushed by cake” defence the prime minister and his allies have deployed, Gray makes it clear that whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with COVID guidance at the time. Even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance.
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2. Staff knew they were breaking the rules
After initially denying that any parties ever took place, Johnson eventually had to backtrack and reassure the public that any gatherings that did take place followed the rules. Tenuous even then, the details in the Gray report make it clear that this was far from the truth. Senior people inside Number 10 knew the gatherings were against the rules and even joked about it.
Emails and messages uncovered by Gray show the regular planning of gatherings and other social events. Some officials did register objections and try to warn that the events were a bad idea, but ultimately they were overruled. The controversial BYOB garden party saw around 200 people formally invited via email.
Martin Reynolds (Johnson’s former principal private secretary) later discussed this event in a WhatsApp exchange, apparently referring to the media making inquiries about a different story and expressing relief that they were not “focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with)”.
3. Insufficient evidence that Johnson knew
The majority of the evidence pertains to exchanges between and logs from the movements of senior staff in Number 10. There is no record of Johnson himself admitting to knowing rules were being broken. However, he may find it harder to now maintain his “I knew nothing” line with some much detail now revealed about the activities of his closest aides.
While Johnson and his supporters may express a sigh of relief over this, the report does not put him in the clear. These were not discreet, covert gatherings. Page after page details organised, large and rowdy parties in Johnson’s home, some of which he admits passing through, even if only momentarily. Ultimately, Johnson may not have organised or participated in all of these events but he was in charge and did nothing to dissuade his subordinates from holding them.
The report clearly points to a failure of leadership from Johnson, even if it doesn’t state this outright. So while he perhaps hasn’t been caught red handed, there may be enough damning evidence circling around him for his MPs to decide his credibility as a leader is too damaged to continue.
4. A convenient focus on culture
Many of Gray’s concerns and recommendations relate to the working culture and structures at Number 10. The government appears to have benefited from having an initial summary of Gray’s findings some months ago and taken the initiative to implement staff changes and restructuring.
Johnson can now point to these changes as evidence of lessons learnt and amends made. Gray even speaks of being reassured by these changes. It’s a helpful inclusion for a prime minister seeking to divert attention away from other aspects of the report.
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5. What’s the meaning of page 18?
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the report is not what it does say but what it does not say, specifically on page 18. This section relates to a gathering held in the Downing Street flat on November 13 2020 – the night Johnson’s senior advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain left government. Extensive rumours were spreading about this particular night for months before the report and the prime minister was repeatedly questioned about it in parliament.
Nevertheless, Gray’s wording is cryptic. She hints that it had all the makings of an illegal gathering but has not investigated further. She states on page 18:
This passage is bound to become the focus of attention in the weeks ahead, not least given the confusion over the logic behind the police investigations into partygate. While junior staff were fined for attending gatherings while Johnson was not, even though he was present too.
Somehow he attended these illegal gatherings legally. Many were surprised to hear that no fines were to be issued for this event either and hoped for clarity on what happened from Gray. That has not been forthcoming is, in itself, a matter of great interest. Did she not want to look into it further? Or was she not allowed to?
- Senior leadership must bear responsibility – Sue Gray | PMP Magazine
— AUTHOR —
▫ Chris Stafford, Political Historian and Contemporary Analyst, Doctoral Researcher, Politics and International Relations Department, University of Nottingham.
- Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 27 May 2022. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Andrew Parsons. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)