Where following Boris leads you
Going viral with Allegra
Who could have foreseen this, eh? Who could have imagined that, after seven days of insisting that there hadn’t been a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street last Christmas, a video would emerge from last Christmas of Downing Street officials joking about their lockdown-busting party?
Or who could have imagined that, just hours after the prime minister’s spokesman emphatically denied that he’d intervened in August’s evacuation of Kabul to make sure that we didn’t forget to rescue the dogs, a letter would emerge revealing he’d done exactly that?
Who, in general, could have thought Boris Johnson’s government would turn out this way? If only there had been some clue from earlier stages of his career that he wasn’t always 100% truthful, eh?
Tuesday saw an evening of bombshells after a day of what is now fairly standard obfuscation and deceit from the government. We woke to learn that a young fast-stream diplomat had quit the Foreign Office in disgust over the chaos of the Afghan withdrawal, submitting a 40-page witness statement to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee that was by turns damning and heartbreaking, with tales of understaffing, a lack of volunteers, and desperate phone calls telling people that it might not be possible to help them.
But Dominic Raab, who has become a sort of all-purpose government punchbag, toured the studios to assure us that things had been just fine. Or not fine, but, you know, not so bad as all that. After all, it was true that tens of thousands of people had been left behind and some of them had probably been killed, but, on the positive side of the ledger, 15,000 people had been rescued, as well as some dogs. Sure, there were lessons to be learned, but he couldn’t think of any off the top of his head.
It turns out the Foreign Office puts less effort into coordinating its holiday rota than a provincial weekly newspaper
If it sounded unimpressive, we realised later that it was the official Foreign Office position. The permanent under-secretary, Sir Philip Barton, Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, popped up to give evidence to the committee.
There are dramatic committee hearings, such as Rupert Murdoch’s appearance in 2011, and there are defiant ones, such as Bob Diamond’s the following year. Barton’s was neither of these. Instead he was bland. A bald, bespectacled man in a grey suit with a tie the colour of wet sand, he seemed determined to be unmemorable. The fury of the questions he was facing might have given his blandness a defiant quality, but it didn’t. It just sounded as though he really didn’t understand why everyone was getting so fussed about a bunch of foreigners.
He couldn’t tell the committee much, because he’d actually been on a break through almost all of the crisis, much of it for the same time as Raab. It turns out the Foreign Office puts less effort into coordinating its holiday rota than a provincial weekly newspaper.
He was, however, prepared to admit that this had been an error. “I have reflected a lot since August,” he said. “And if I had my time again I would come back earlier.”
He was so pleased with this line that he kept saying it until the chairman, Tom Tugendhat, told him to stop: “It sounds less credible every time you repeat it.”
Barton’s insisted that his absence probably hadn’t made any difference, and this, at least, was plausible. He predecessors carved up Africa, drew lines in the sand, plotted secret deals over the Suez Canal. Barton by contrast came across as The Man Who Wasn’t There. Which, indeed, he hadn’t been.
This Sketch was going to be about Barton, who among many other things couldn’t explain why there’d been an airlift for dogs when there were still stranded humans, but then ITV released The Video.
It is very hard to see how anyone in that room can keep their job
So let us turn to The Party That Didn’t Happen. There is something fitting about Boris Johnson spending millions on a media suite only for its most significant moment to be catching him in a lie. It’s perfect that it happened during a rehearsal for the televised press conference that his Team Of Geniuses were convinced would Expose The Media. And given the amount of taxpayer money the government has spent on vanity photographers and vanity film crews, it’s especially pleasing that they have finally given us a completely authentic viral video.
“What’s the answer?” spokeswoman Allegra Stratton asked, as they discussed how they should explain away the party they’d held four days earlier. “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine,” someone suggested. “Is cheese and wine alright?” Stratton asked, doubtfully. As it turned out, her replacement as spokesman would simply lie. So much easier.
There is a lot going on in that minute of footage. The guilty shared knowledge that they had broken the rules. The astonishing ignorance from the actual prime minister’s actual spokeswoman about what the rules were. The laughter, at a time when some people were dying and a lot of others were desperate. It is very hard to see how anyone in that room can keep their job.
Maybe they will. Maybe the people who attended the party will hold a press conference in the Downing Street garden explaining they were only doing what any sexed-up twentysomethings would do, while Matt Hancock tweets a supportive message: “I know how horny lockdown makes you. They were entirely right to get off their tits and head for the mistletoe.”
But let us go back to the Foreign Affairs Committee where, eventually, Tugendhat ran out of patience with Barton’s explanation that he couldn’t have made a difference if he’d come to work. He didn’t erupt. He was calm, and matter of fact, explaining something that Britain’s most senior diplomat really ought to have known.
“Leadership matters,” he said. “It’s not just about the difference that a leader can make in terms of tactical command, but about the strategic intent that it demonstrates for an organisation, and the seriousness with which an organisation pursues its function.”
This is the point. If the Foreign Secretary and his chief civil servant stay on holiday when Afghanistan is collapsing, why would more junior diplomats volunteer for night shift? When the prime minister is Boris Johnson, who is surprised to learn that staff in Number 10 decided they could ignore the rules they’d set for everyone else?
Leadership matters. Who could have foreseen that?
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