It bears repeating. After 126 fines, alcohol up the walls, vomiting staff, parties that went on until 4.30am, a broken swing, cleaners treated appallingly, a karaoke machine, a quiz and “wine time Fridays”, the only person to have resigned over partygate is Allegra Stratton.
Let us remember, there is no suggestion that the Prime Minister’s former spokeswoman broke any rules herself. She resigned because she had been recorded laughing at the challenge before her: how to defend Boris Johnson should the press get wind of the parties, in particular a Christmas event in December 2020 when London was under Covid resrictions that banned indoor social gatherings. For this, the Downing Street press secretary earned the PM’s fury: he shared the nation’s anger, he said, at staff “seeming to make light of lockdown measures”. He, too, was “furious to see that clip”. He accepted her resignation.
Six months later we have photographic evidence, an independent inquiry and an investigation by the Met police. It is clear. Not only did Johnson know about the parties, he went to them. Not only did he go to them, he definitively broke the law at least once in doing so. He is not going to resign. If I were Stratton, I would be feeling rather cross.
In Johnson’s government there seems to be no adherence to the rules that govern the rest of us: the idea that the law of the land should apply to rich and poor alike. When groups are essentially allowed to hold themselves to account (Johnson will not go until Tory MPs consider it in their self-interest to get rid of him; he will not force ministers to resign if he feels it weakens his own position), it all becomes rather more messily Darwinian. The strong – those further up the hierarchy – seem to be able to break rules with impunity, while traditional can-carriers get landed with the blame. (Fines, even when the police got involved, fell disproportionately on junior members of staff, in particular women.) The only rule is the law of the jungle: do what it takes to survive.
I’d suggest it is no coincidence that, in this atmosphere, the only person to have resigned over partygate is a woman. Ed Oldfield, a special adviser who was also seen laughing about the parties in the clip, attracted much less ire than Stratton and was allowed to leave government quietly for a job in the private sector three months after her tearful resignation. Women have always been held to a higher standard in public life. That’s a disadvantage at the best of times, but becomes almost impossible in a workplace where holding yourself to a high standard – and taking responsibility for your actions – is an active handicap. They are in a double bind.
Members of the public may find it hard to sympathise with Stratton, or any other former or present official of a government that partied while they obeyed draconian rules. But they should care that within government we now have what essentially amounts to a tax on ethics. Others in political life will be taking note of what happened to Stratton, and reminding themselves to “never apologise, never explain”. In the wake of partygate, lessons will certainly be learned by those in power. One in particular: if you’re stubborn enough, you can break the law in government and survive.