“They had a drink after what had been a gruelling day.” This is how the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab defended the leaked photo taken from the Downing Street garden – where Boris Johnson, his wife and up to 17 staff shared cheese and wine on 15 May 2020. It is an interesting choice of words.
It might be said that my family and I had a slightly more “gruelling day” than they did. On 14 May, we held a funeral for our 14-year-old son Fred Bennett, who died of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
The difference is, I suppose, that his service lasted ten minutes, by his graveside, with ten people present. That wasn’t enough to include our whole family, let alone the friends who had known him all his life. After the service, we walked home and everyone got in their cars and drove away, leaving us alone to grieve.
We had no cheese and no wine.
On 3 May, Fred passed away in Great Ormond Street Hospital. He had already been in hospital for many months and, as if to add to our heartbreak, Covid restrictions pushed us to our very limits. First, our younger son was no longer able to visit his brother, then there were times when my husband wasn’t allowed to visit either, as there was a one parent rule. As Fred’s condition deteriorated, the hospital relaxed that rule so that both of us could be with him, with my husband returning alone to a borrowed flat each night, our other son 100 miles away. We know only too sharply the sacrifices that our health team, behind their masks and PPE, made to keep us safe.
And then Fred died suddenly, having not seen anyone other than his parents for weeks.
At his funeral, Fred had a motorcycle hearse; he had always wanted a motorbike but we wouldn’t let him have one. Our younger son, desperate to honour his brother, asked if he could ride his bike behind it. A few of Fred’s friends joined on their bikes too, careful to keep the 2-metre distance. They escorted him to the churchyard and then rode away. Friends stood on the roadside but were unable to approach us or hug us.
Nothing could have made our experience – which was not ours alone – bearable. But what we needed were leaders who recognised our pain, and the sacrifices we had been asked to make.
What we got, however, were trips to Barnard Castle, “a drink after a busy set of work meetings”, and then party (upon party – sorry, quiz) when it came to Christmas time.
The laws were drawn up by people who seem to have no concept that they themselves might be expected to abide by them. We are governed by people who do not know that leadership means not expecting people to do anything that you would not be prepared to do yourself.
It is not the wine, or even the cheese, that hurts the most. It is the callousness, and the disregard for others that it demonstrates. They were fiddling with canapés while lives around them imploded, under the very rules they imposed.
If these were critical business meetings, then the severity of the crisis meant that there was no place for wine and nibbles. If this was, as Raab said, “a lot of exhausted people… having a drink after the formal business had been done”, then they should have known that this was a remarkable privilege not extended to anyone else.
Raab suggested that this kind of gathering differed from what others wanted to congregate for – that rather than an evening of levity and frivolity, it was a professional, work-related event: “This wasn’t a social occasion,” he said. He’s right that we wanted to meet for an entirely different reason to No 10, but I only wish that what I had to go through the day before could be construed as a “social occasion”.
[See also: Boris Johnson is finally out of luck]