Whitehall shirks the blame game

Are civil servants the blameless dupes of “partygate”?

Artillery Row

Imagine if, last December, Boris Johnson had announced that he was ordering an official investigation into alleged Downing Street parties during the Covid lockdown and that he was pleased to announce that his esteemed Cabinet colleague, Priti Patel (Home Secretary no less!), had agreed to take on the onerous task of getting to the bottom of it.

Sarcastic mirth would have been the gentlest response. Sharper critics would have announced that this was the tawdry moment that Britain’s government shredded the last vestiges of Gladstonian rectitude and embraced the cynicism of a banana republic. How could the prime minister’s conduct be judged honestly by one of his closest political colleagues? Clearly, it could not. And it wasn’t.

The “partygate” scandal, as far as the Opposition, the media, and seemingly much of the country maintain, is essentially about the behaviour of one man, the prime minister. Whoever else instigated, attended, or spilt wine on the furnishings is a detail, not the story.

There is no popular appetite for naming and shaming the instigators and organisers of these wide range of illicit parties. Nor is there much of a clamour to reveal who attended them (beyond the prime minister and, in one fleeting and unfortunate acceptance of a slice of cake, Rishi Sunak). This incuriosity comes despite some of gatherings — without either prime minister or chancellor in attendance — having continued into the small hours whilst most of the country tried to honour the lockdown rules.

The police referred 126 fixed penalty fines relating to eight events where they concluded these rules were breached, involving 83 individuals. Excluding one for the prime minister and one for his next-door neighbour, that is 124 fixed penalty notices. Anyone seeking to know the identity of these miscreants is only marginally wiser now. With the publication in full of Sue Gray’s report, we have as much disclosure as officialdom decrees the scandal requires.

Yet, these 124 fines were overwhelmingly — indeed all but entirely — handed out to various ranks of civil servants. And the person engaged to produce the official report on these civil servants’ misbehaviour was the number two civil servant at the heavily implicated Cabinet Office, Sue Gray. A prime minister being investigated by his Cabinet colleague would considered farcical. But civil servants being investigated by a civil servant in many cases from their own department is beyond reproach.

civil servants being investigated by a civil servant in many cases from their own department is beyond reproach?

It is not necessary to cast either personal or professional aspersions at Sue Gray to simply point out a fact: that the civil service has been asked to mark its own homework. In doing so, it has recorded the epic wrongdoing confirmed by the number of fixed penalty fines recommended by the police investigation. But, beyond stating that “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture” Gray has avoided, wherever it was feasible, getting the vast majority of those involved into the frame.

Of course, if the prime minister will not fall on his sword, why should anyone else? But Johnson has hardly escaped from this episode Scot-free. For almost half a year now he has been ritually and repeatedly humiliated for his culpability on the floor of the House of Commons: shouted down, abused, accursed. The assaults on his fitness to continue in office come even from some of the braver — as well as the more self-serving – honourable members ranged behind him.

That is not all. If they didn’t do so already, lobby and comment journalists now hold Johnson in open contempt and invite their readers to do likewise. The final cost to the prime minister’s reputation (and to the government he leads) is yet to be tallied. For now, 59 per cent of voters think he should resign, including more than a quarter of Conservative voters. One of the most severe penalty fines a frontline politician can receive is to their reputation. Named and shamed, Johnson is paying it, whether he acknowledges it or not.

Not so the receivers of the other 124 fines. Whilst Sue Gray accepts in her report that there is no convention against naming senior civil servants, she is indulgently sparing in doing so. The report however cites “unique circumstances” (which go unspecified) as a reason not to name lower and middle-ranking civil servants as a matter of principle. This is regardless of their culpability in rowdy antics that would be shameful enough without the lockdown rules that made them illegal. At least we presume the worst of the identified behaviour was their doing, unless we are to imagine that it was our top mandarins who smashed a child’s swing, sprayed wine and vomit and engaged in other obnoxiously adolescent antics?

This is a curious indulgence of the career sensitivities and rights to privacy of civil servants who the police have concluded are (as we like to call it when it applies to a politician) “law-breakers”.

This courtesy has not in the “unique circumstances” been extended to those other private citizens, many in far more less privileged positions than civil servants deemed smart enough to work in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, who were also fined for breaching lockdown.

Across the country, the police and media have readily — and it has to be admitted sometimes gleefully — splashed the identity of those who fell foul of the regulations, even when their transgression was pitifully slight. Some were given fines far beyond their ability to pay. Publicly shaming them was a key part of their punishment. Short of putting them in the village stocks to be pelted with rotten fruit, they received no shielding from the fury of the righteous. (The latter, Britain’s fastest growing demographic.)

Publicly shaming them was a key part of their punishment

By contrast, civil servant lockdown snook-cockers are considered not fair game for public opprobrium. It would not be fitting for them to suffer adverse publicity which might affect their promotion to even higher positions than working in Downing Street within the citadel of Whitehall. After all, some of them may only have been drunk and disorderly because their civil service line-mangers sanctioned it. That is the premise upon which the Gray report pleads for mercy.

Some of the original “partygaters” have long since moved on which is why we know their identity. Sue Gray’s successor as Cabinet Office director general of propriety and ethics, Helen McNamara, attended the notorious karaoke party in which some of the most insufferable behaviour occurred. Long before she received her fine, she had outgrown Whitehall and taken her ethical knowhow to the English Premier League.

As for Simon Case – Johnson’s initial choice to head the inquiry — he recused himself from leading the investigation only after he was rumbled (in an event that happened in his own office) and not because he admitted his own compromised status when he initially accepted the commission. He remains in post as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service.

Indeed, not one civil servant, at any rank, has resigned or — as far as can be ascertained — been told to consider their position as a direct result of being fined. This points to what was structurally wrong with the entire process. Sue Gray had no powers of compulsion; other than being caught holding stuff back from her inquires there were and are no legal consequences for not having told her things.

not one civil servant, at any rank, has resigned

Where is responsibility within Whitehall? The publication of the Gray report comes days after the cross-party Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published its damning findings into the “systemic failures” of the Foreign Office top mandarinate responsible for the shambolic withdrawal from Kabul last August. That catastrophe cost human lives (although thanks to top Whitehall planning not animal ones).

Among its damning conclusions, the Afghanistan report stated it had no confidence in the civil servant heading the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Sir Philip Barton. As yet, Sir Philip has not drawn any personal conclusion from these excoriating findings.

Sue Gray makes very clear how she interpreted the limits of her remit, writing “nothing set out in this report can be taken as constituting a disciplinary investigation or findings of fact appropriate for such a purpose.” Many will see any effort (such as this article) to criticise the behaviour of those civil servants fined for breaking the laws they administered and helped devise as a politically motivated effort to deflect attention from the lamentable example and obfuscation shown by the prime minister.

The reality is that when it comes to poor judgment and a reticence to face consequences, 10 Downing Street’s temporary resident and too many of that address’s rather more permanent key workers are made for one another.

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