Courting disaster

Number 10, as a court, is now more-or-less sui generis


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“I think the problem is Boris is running a modern government like a medieval court,” declared Andrew Mitchell MP in the wake of the publication of Sue Gray’s eviscerated report. Instead, he continued, “You need to rule and govern through the structures, through Whitehall, through the Cabinet and National Security Council.”

Setting aside the yah-boo word “medieval”, Mitchell’s description of the Johnson regime as a “court” is accurate, even perceptive. But his critique gets things precisely the wrong way round. It is the “court” aspects of Johnson’s government which have delivered its few notable successes and Mitchell’s much-vaunted formal governmental “structures” which have produced its long catalogue of disasters.

Let’s begin with the description. In my article for the July issue of The Critic, I said that we needed radically to revise our understanding of the premiership. The prime minister was a monarch, I argued, Downing Street a palace and its inhabitants a court. Now, on cue, the revelations of “Partygate”, even in Gray’s bowdlerised account, offer the incontrovertible documentary proof. 

The essence, the fundamental guiding principle of a court, is the controlling of access to the monarch. The modern “verge of court” is the Downing Street security gates. Ornate and misleadingly traditional, the gates were a hugely contentious innovation of the reign of that great queen bee, Margaret Thatcher. 

Outside the gates, on the Whitehall side, there is the scrum of tourists, demonstrators, journalists, photographers, camera crew and other riff-raff; inside the gates, on the Downing Street side, there is the primrose path to the paradise of power, otherwise known as the door of Number 10.

“Plebs”: courtier-speak for us, the people outside the gates

Inside and outside: it’s as clear as the division between Heaven and Hell. And the passage from the one to the other is as jealously guarded by the modern Cerberus of the Downing Street police. Just as it once was by the Tudor porters of the Holbein Gate of Henry VIII’s Whitehall Palace, which stood on almost the same spot.

The mere right to come and go through these gates produces an intoxicating sense of privilege, as Mitchell himself illustrates. He, it will be remembered (though he would much rather that it were not), wrecked his career in an altercation with these self-same porter-police. 

They dared to order him, doubly-entitled as both a cabinet minister and a cyclist, to dismount and go through the pedestrian gate. He demanded to have the main gates opened so that he could sail through on his bike. And when the police refused, he directed a stream of foulmouthed and, still worse, snobbish abuse at them. 

“Best you learn your fucking place,” he ranted according to the official police log. “You don’t run this fucking government … You’re fucking plebs.”

“Plebs”. Courtier-speak for us, the people outside the gates.

But once inside the gates all such clarity disappears. Thus Mitchell ­— despite his preening — was, as a cabinet minister, only an occasional courtier. The cabinet is part of the formal “structure” of government. But it meets in the heart of Downing Street in the handsome, pillared Cabinet Room which overlooks the Prime Minister’s garden.

Next, however, to the Cabinet Room the real arcana imperii begins with the Prime Minister’s Meeting Room and, beyond that, the Political Office, while below, in the Garden Room, is the Downing Street typing pool. Which is why, on 19 June 2020, the Cabinet Room, which in the twentieth century had twice witnessed Britain’s decision to declare war on Germany, was the scene of Boris’s impromptu birthday party. 

Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife, aided by Lulu Lytle, his interior designer, presented him with a cake while the assembled staff sang “Happy Birthday” and ate M&S nibbles. It was 2pm, which is perhaps why there appears to be no record of what or how much was drunk.

It’s easy to murmur disparagingly about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But on 4 August 1914, as Britain’s ultimatum to Germany expired, the then prime minister’s wife, Margot Asquith (having first checked that their children were asleep) also joined her husband and his inner circle in the Cabinet Room. “When the last beat of midnight struck,” she wrote, “it was as silent as dawn. We were at war.” On her way back upstairs she saw Winston Churchill, on cue and with “a happy face”, striding towards the double doors of the Cabinet Room.

Gray’s report approaches the goings-on at Number 10 with the purse-lipped incomprehension of a Victorian missionary

The times were different. But there was the same porous border between public and private. The same prominent role for a forceful and politically aware prime minister’s wife. The same joyful zest, on Churchill’s part at least, for a crisis that would cost proportionately at least ten times as many lives as Covid, and from among the young and fit. The same, if not greater, consumption of alcohol: Churchill, who could take his drink, did — and in prodigious quantities; while Asquith, masterful in peace but increasingly out of his depth in war, more and more lived down to his nickname of Squiffy. 

So all par for the course. Or rather for a court. But not for Sue Gray, despite the fact that her CV includes a stint as a pub landlady herself. Instead, her report approaches the goings-on at Boris’s Number 10 with the purse-lipped incomprehension of a Victorian missionary confronting a tribe of phallus-worshipping savages.

The boozing is bad of course. But what really gets Gray’s goat is that everything is, well, grey. There is no black and white, no neat division between public and private or business and pleasure. She gets into a tizzy about the Number 10 garden and despairs about the Number 10 flat.

The result is that she impales herself on a series of absurd definitional dilemmas. When is a party not a party but a work event when what we are told are work events take place in the Downing Street garden over wine, cheese and nibbles and with Carrie in attendance? And when is an event after-hours (and therefore a party) when there are no fixed hours and people work (and party) every hour God sends? This is the stuff, not of a Civil Service report and still less of a Metropolitan Police investigation, but of a medieval disputation or a Victorian debate about the classification of Lepidoptera.

“Inside the gates, on the Downing Street side, there is the primrose path to the paradise of power, otherwise known as the door of Number 10”

The absurdity arises from Gray’s wilful refusal to see that Number 10, as a court, is now more-or-less sui generis. Both the fact that it is and that we find it so hard to understand are products of the Victorian revolution in working practices. Before the Victorians, most work took place in the home (as at Number 10) and what didn’t was in the mines and the fields. It was steam power that moved manual labour into factories and the telephone, typewriter and card index that shifted clerical workers into industrially-scaled office buildings.

This led to the modern distinction between workplace and home on which the Covid regulations were based. Which is why, of course, they fit Number 10 so ill. The Victorian revolution in working practices combined with the Victorian Empire also produced Mitchell’s “structure” of government and led to the building of the colossal Victorian and Edwardian palazzi lining Whitehall to accommodate its burgeoning bureaucracy.

But the palazzi are now emptying and being sold off for luxury hotels. For the microchip, hugely accelerated by Covid, is bringing about another revolution as WFH breaks down — for the professional classes at least — the frontier between work and home which the Victorians built up. 

With this new fluidity, the court of Number 10 suddenly looks like a harbinger of the future rather than a survival of the past. And, even afloat on its sea of alcohol, its informality gave us the triumph of the vaccine programme, whereas the calcified “structure” of Public Health England delivered the catastrophe of Test and Trace. 

Perhaps Boris should have tried explaining a bit of this at PMQs rather than blethering disgracefully about Jimmy Savile.

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