Never trust anyone who is rude to a waiter, the old adage goes. It’s easy enough to be pleasant and kind to those you consider equals; how you treat those who serve you is the true mark of character.
So one of the most damning things to emerge from Sue Gray’s report on the culture in Britain’s first Club 18-30 Downing Street is the shocking, yet in no way surprising, revelation that the service staff were treated like s***. “I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff,” Gray writes. “This,” she adds, using the standard civil service euphemism for “completely and utterly appalling”, was “unacceptable”.
Someone, after all, had to clear away the bottles, or deal with the fall-out from the fact that “one individual was sick”. They won’t have been well paid; they will have been subject to the same lockdown rules as the rest of us; they won’t, one can safely assume, have been invited to the parties. Yet there is not a shred of evidence that they were factored in to the decision of Downing Street officials to hold regular booze-ups even slightly. They simply didn’t count.
How would such a culture have taken hold? Part of it must come from a Westminster bubble in which drinking and misbehaviour are as prevalent as the long hours, poor HR and stress they’re used to compensate for. And part of it is not unique to Westminster at all: Downing Street is hardly the only place where people in suits gave too little thought to those who cleaned up after them.
But there is surely another reason, which is that the limits of acceptable behaviour in any organisation are set by those at the top, and the guy at the top of this organisation is Boris Johnson. A man who is psychologically incapable of seeming contrite for more than a few moments, even when it would be in his interests to do so; a man who lies, even when he knows – he must know – that it’ll be the work of moments to prove him wrong.
During a period when the Prime Minister was supposed to be isolating after testing positive for Covid, one of his staff told the Times back in January: “We had to create a ’cat run’ for him to get down from the flat to his office so he wouldn’t come into contact with people. The idea was we could talk to him through the open door. But he kept on coming out so we put two chairs across the door like some kind of puppy gate.” If the Prime Minister “simply did not think about following the rules”, as that source put it, is it any wonder his staff didn’t? If he acts like his needs matter more than those he considers beneath him, is it any wonder his team did the same?
This would be bad enough if it only affected Downing Street, but it doesn’t. One way or another – because of who chooses to work for them, who gets promoted, what policies get pushed because somebody, somewhere, thinks they’ll impress the boss – governments come to look like their Prime Ministers. Under Tony Blair, that meant an ever-multiplying crowd of ministers who talked like management consultants and seemed to think that the point of politics was to beat their own side; under Theresa May, it meant a worrying, creeping authoritarianism.
Under Boris Johnson, though, it means a government as empty of ethics and ideas as he is. It means ministers who defend the indefensible, because neither standards nor the views of the electorate even come into it, and others who mislead parliament and don’t resign. (He hasn’t, after all, so why should they?) It means the replacement of policy with culture war nonsense, because the goal of the exercise is no longer to change the country but to get a flattering write-up in friendly newspapers.
It means MPs who lie brazenly because there are clearly no consequences to doing so. It means spokespeople who obfuscate and mislead, and we know that they’re doing it, and they know that we know, but still they continue because all that matters is that they hold the line at all costs. It means a government in which Grant Shapps – Grant Shapps – counts as one of the more serious figures, because even though he started his career as an internet marketer with a bevy of fake names, and his natural station in life is as deputy manager of a branch of Foxton’s, he’s at least shown an interest in his brief. This would be a bad way of running any business, but we’re not talking about a business. We’re talking about a country.
Some people believe that everyone in politics is like this – more interested in power than policy, only out for themselves. That’s true of many, and of this governing party especially, because for all the talk of free markets or conservative ideas there has always been a strain of Toryism whose goal is nothing loftier than to win power for power’s sake. But there are also many politicians of whom this is not true, who have some sense of duty or mission, even if that mission may be something we, personally, find abhorrent.
Those people are not in this government. Because this government, like the man who leads it, has no greater purpose than to stay exactly where it is, and no higher mission than to win the next election. Maybe it will, even after all this, but it’s surely becoming less likely. The real problems are piling up – and this government is as empty as the bottles those at its head left for someone less important to clear away.