There came a point during the drip-feed of Downing Street party revelations when I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t being masterminded by some bright young bod in the Prime Minister’s Office itself. “Think about it,” says the adviser to the PM. “No need to resign, no need to fire anyone, and certainly no need to bring in the police – until Sue Gray has completed her report. But here’s the thing: Sue Gray’s remit has been left open-ended to include investigations into any further disclosures about parties that may come her way. So we can keep Sue Gray busy by slowly leaking information about each of the parties we held, leaking say one or two a week. That should keep her going until the next general election, which we’ll boot as far into 2024 as we can. Am I not a genius and even though I’m only 23 can I have some sort of peerage? And a party to celebrate?”
“Let’s go for it!” says the PM. “Although you never heard me say that.”
It’s come to an ugly pass when the above scenario would seem unbelievable in a fictional dramatisation of what goes on in Westminster, but be regarded as totally credible by all of us if it were to emerge as fact. Such has been the corrosive power of the events of the past few weeks: all those caricatures of the grotesquery of Westminster behaviour are revealed to be horrendously accurate! The booziness, the lack of concern for the public, the 20- and early-30-somethings running the place like they own it – aides and advisers who haven’t run anything but a car or a squash ladder, but who find themselves drawing up plans to shut elderly dementia sufferers in their only room for months on end. These Shite Young Things really are much, much more horrible than any writer ever imagined. They really do drink while strategising tax tapers every Friday. They really do snog under a portrait of Henry Campbell-Bannerman. And, yes, they actually did wheel a booze fridge in by the Downing Street back door.
Who are these people? Those people we saw in that Allegra Stratton video before Christmas, and their like? What was most devastating about that video wasn’t the admission about a knees-up, but the complete lack of ethical alarm that what they were discussing was in any way wrong, let alone illegal. Yes, there was a sniggering sort of guilt when discussing the drinks, but it didn’t sound like real remorse; more like the faux-guilt 15-year-olds have when laughing embarrassedly at how smashed they got the night before, but loudly to make sure the quantity has been heard, noted and given respect.
There was no, “My God, that’s awful: there’s was a party! At a time like this?” but instead a lolloping, lazy flurry of random lies: it was a business meeting, it was a work event; say it was smaller than it was, say it was socially distanced when it wasn’t. The most honest moment came when Stratton said, “What’s the answer?” It was a frozen point of recognition that they were all trapped in a language game where truth wasn’t allowed to play – and that there was now no way out.
I’ve always thought that people who go into politics really are a different species. Odd fish. Not like us. No time for television, which is why they’re happy to trash the BBC. Keen to let us all know when they’ve been to see a Star Wars movie or football match. The sort who say “fist bump” when they fist bump. I don’t mean the majority of those who end up as committed MPs or civil servants, working an anonymous and unglamorous life for their departments or constituencies, but those who crave power, who go into politics with a vague set of beliefs. If they have a doctrine, it is one built around self-interest and ambition.
They’re a weird mix. Some see the whole thing as a bit of a lark. Given how young they are, they can’t quite believe the amount of influence they wield. They cover up the fear that they’re just busking and about to be found out by confidently texting, “I’ve only gone and spent all night with Rishi devising a f***ing furlough scheme!” to their friends next morning.
The other sort are the quiet but deadly ones: they know precisely what they believe and want. They’ve already made their decisions on what will happen and which institutions it will happen to, and nothing can persuade them to deviate from their mission: there is no expert or event that can show that their plan won’t work; no sickness, no deaths, nothing. They are convinced that their plan is correct, the right thing to do, good for us all, and history will not judge them wrong.
Both these types are dangerous. One sees truth as a killjoy, the other doesn’t believe it can call itself truth if it doesn’t match their fixed opinion. And increasingly prime ministers have let these people set the tone for their actions. Downing Street is now a playpen for ideology and immaturity: a lethal mix that confirms the ethical rot at the heart of the state.
Government is neither a think tank nor a bit of a laugh. It should be deadly serious and acting to standards higher than all of us. It would be great if politics was populated with normal people, but, since it’s not, and if those running the country really are going to be marked as different from everyone else, it should be because they’re better than us and not worse.
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[see also: Why Boris Johnson’s No 10 is so dysfunctional]
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party