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26 May 2022

No 10 officials need to stand up to Boris Johnson, not appease him

If unchallenged, the Prime Minister will further contaminate the culture of the civil service with partygate, just as he has contaminated the Conservative Party.

By David Gauke

The worse it is for Boris Johnson, the better it is for him. We can see two examples of this paradox in operation at the moment.

First, in terms of his position as Conservative leader, there is a growing sense among Tory MPs that they are heading towards defeat at the next general election. The cost-of-living crisis, administrative incompetence and the collapse in trust in the Prime Minister mean that Conservatives feel they need a miracle to win next time around. But when assessing which of the possible candidates to lead the party into a general election has the potential to be a miracle-worker, they come up with a shortlist of one: Boris Johnson. He might be responsible for getting them into a mess but he might just get them out of it. It has happened before.

Second, in terms of partygate, the more serious the charges levelled against the Prime Minister, the lower the bar became for his behaviour. Initially, the allegation was that parties occurred in Downing Street. The Prime Minister may or may not have been present at these “gatherings” but the point was that he was responsible for the culture there. But Johnson denied that there were any parties in Downing Street, so then the issue became his honesty. Then evidence emerged that he had attended gatherings himself, so the issue was whether he had himself broken the rules. This resulted in the Metropolitan Police – at a very late stage – deciding to investigate.

The test now became one not of ministerial responsibility but of legal culpability. The Met has not given us an explanation for why the Prime Minister received only one fine, or why it appears to have accepted his argument that when he turned up at the various events Johnson was still working – that he was there to thank staff and, therefore, performing a management function. Thanking staff, in the Met’s interpretation of the regulations, was something that could be viewed as being reasonably necessary for work, but being thanked was not. Hence, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary escaped fines but the unfortunate junior staff who attended the same events did not.

[See also: The Met Police saved Boris Johnson from partygate]

This interpretation of the regulations is questionable and the Prime Minister’s denials of misleading parliament are implausible, but let us focus on the first allegation – that he presided over a culture of rule-breaking in Downing Street.

What we know from the final version of the Sue Gray report – and, for that matter, Laura Kuenssberg’s Panorama on the BBC this week – is that boozy socialising was a big part of the culture in Downing Street at a time when socialising (boozy or otherwise) was prohibited.

The Prime Minister still claims that those in Downing Street believed they were complying with the regulations – this was all work – but this is evidently not true. Gray sets out the evidence of the wording of invitations being changed, leaving by back doors, avoiding cameras and references to “getting away with it”.  As long as the public did not know, it was fine.

It was fine because, for junior civil servants, their bosses knew what was going on and were very relaxed about it. Why were their bosses relaxed about it? They knew – or, at least, confidently assumed – that their political master would be very relaxed about it. This is why partygate would not have happened under any other recent prime minister – because someone somewhere in the chain of civil service command would have been worried that the prime minister would have been furious to discover such behaviour in such circumstances.

One could go further. It is all too plausible to believe that the Prime Minister prefers to have people around him who are not sticklers for the rules. If they are enforcing rules on others then they might be pushing back on him. That would be no fun.

Of course, Johnson claims to have solved this cultural problem by changing staff and undertaking some organisational changes. But the fundamental cultural problem stems from Johnson himself and he has gone nowhere.

We might hope to see evidence that the leadership of the civil service insisted on higher standards of propriety, but there are reasons to be concerned. On Tuesday (24 May), the Times reported that Samantha Jones, the permanent secretary at No 10, organised a meeting between Johnson and Gray after the former was “apoplectic” about reports that the latter was going to criticise him in her report. When the existence of this meeting emerged, No 10 inaccurately briefed that Gray had instigated the meeting.

At best, it was neither wise for the Prime Minister, nor fair on Gray, for such a meeting to happen and, at worst, involved improper pressure on a supposedly independent investigation. This meeting should not have been facilitated. Johnson, at the second time of asking in the House of Commons, denied asking Gray not to publish her report (an issue to watch, I suspect) but if the Times account is accurate, this suggests that civil servants were too willing to do the Prime Minister’s bidding. We know that the Johnson approach is not to consider what is right but what he can get away with. Unchallenged, he will further contaminate the culture of the civil service just as he has contaminated the culture of the Conservative Party. Johnson won’t change but it is high time that senior officials showed their mettle and defended and exemplified the best traditions of the civil service.

[See also: Boris Johnson has proved once again that he has no shame]

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