You want answers? You think you’re entitled? You want the truth? We would get it, eventually, and slightly by accident, but it would take several hours.
We didn’t get it from Sue Gray. A stellar player in our Rolls-Royce civil service, she had negotiated her way like an Olympic skier down the hazard-laden black run that is holding an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s ethics.
All sorts of awful things had been done, she revealed, but she couldn’t tell us by whom. Junior people were scolded but not named, and senior people were named but not scolded. Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, who had already been named, was offered as a fall guy if one was needed. He’s set to be punished by being made ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Try organising a bring-a-bottle party there.
As for the notorious Abba party in the prime minister’s flat, Gray had wisely decided it would be safest not to investigate it at all. You can’t see anything if you keep your eyes shut.
And that, as far as the prime minister was concerned, really was that. “I really think it’s time that the country moves on,” Johnson said, humbly, apologetically, taking full responsibility-ishly. He has listened to you tedious people whining on for six bloody months about rules and investigations in — as he phrased it to Sir Keir Starmer — your “sanctimonious obsession”, and he really has had enough.
Johnson told us he took full responsibility, though never for what
Gray’s wasn’t the only blind eye being turned in Downing Street. The prime minister explained to parliament that, although he had previously denied there being any parties, and although there clearly had been parties and he had clearly attended them, he hadn’t been lying because they had only become parties after he had left. “I had no knowledge of subsequent proceedings because I simply wasn’t there,” he said. “I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations unfolded.”
Besides, he said, there had been lots of days when there hadn’t been parties. “It is important to set out,” he said, “that over a period of about 600 days, gatherings on a total of eight dates have been found to be in breach of the regulations.” He did seem to want a medal for this, as though he had done well in the circumstances to keep it to just the 126 fines. Downing Street, the prime minister assured MPs, now had staff who knew that people have to obey the law. “The entire senior management has changed,” he said, although close observers noted that one senior person remained in post.
Tory MPs seemed uncertain what to make of all this. Some shouted abuse at Keir Starmer, or “Sir Beers Korma”, as Johnson, formerly one of the country’s highest-paid wordsmiths, called him. Theresa May sat silently directly behind her successor, radiating the kind of negative energy that would put a black hole to shame. Most of them showed their support by quickly fleeing the scene. Soon there were just 60 of them, and then only 30. Tory whips managed to rustle up just nine supportive questions.
Again and again Johnson told us he took full responsibility, though never for what. He was dismissive of the event for which he’d been fined, and evasive about the Abba party. Most of his effort was probably going into suppressing his smirk that he was once again going to get away with it all.
It helps him that so many desperately do want to move on. At his subsequent press conference, he made his actions sound perfectly reasonable. But recall that at the time the prime minister felt it was right and proper to have a few drinks to say goodbye to a colleague, a great many people weren’t allowed to say goodbye to parents or partners as they died in hospitals and care homes. Friends and family gathered, guiltily, in car parks outside crematoria to pay silent respects in breach of the regulations, because they weren’t allowed in the chapels.
His staff had been working so hard, he complained. Often, he didn’t say, they hadn’t cracked open a bottle until 4pm. But the cleaners who had to wipe the wine and the vomit off the floor and the walls were also on the frontline. At least one government cleaner, instructed to keep coming in to work during lockdown, contracted Covid and died. His name was Emanuel Gomes. One of his colleagues was sacked while isolating. Although the prime minister kept telling us that it was impossible to distinguish working from partying, cleaners probably know the difference. The clue is whether you’re holding a toilet brush.
But we know what those around Johnson think of people like Gomes. “I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff,” Gray said. Cleaning up sick, like lockdown, was for the little people.
Asked whether his staff, who have been telling journalists for months that there were no parties, had lied to him as well, the prime minister explained that they had been suffering from a false consciousness.
“They genuinely believed that what they were doing was working,” he explained. “And they did not think that what they were doing was against the rules.” It had been a working karaoke! A working punch-up! A working chunder! A working wine spillage!
Theresa May sat silently directly behind her successor, radiating the kind of negative energy that would put a black hole to shame
It is possible, given his past experiences, that Johnson genuinely believes that you’re not in a proper workplace unless there’s an ongoing paternity dispute. The Abba party in his flat had also been work, he explained. A working singalong, while people whose actual job was to sing along to Abba songs in theatres weren’t allowed to do it.
His presence at the parties, denied for months, was actually something of which he was proud. It had been “one of the essential duties of leadership,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me that this was anything except what it was my duty to do.” Finally, we had got to the truth. He had believed it was his duty to have parties. No wonder his staff had believed it was their duty to drink until they passed out. They had done it all for us!
The fact is, he didn’t actually say, we live in a world that has suitcases of wine, and those bottles need to be opened by people with corkscrews, using words like vintage, covid-secure bar, and wine fridge. He had neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself to people who worked or slept while his team was singing “Sweet Caroline” in the basement. He would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, or poured yourself a gin and typed out a press release.
And then it was 4pm and the press conference had to end. The prime minister explained he was needed urgently elsewhere. It was, after all, past wine time.
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