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Moment that mattered: The police announce ‘Partygate’ fines

Prime minister Boris Johnson holds a press conference in response to the publication of the Sue Gray report on 25th May 2022. Photo: Leon Neal, WPA Pool /Getty Images

The ‘Partygate’ scandal began in early December 2021 when the Mirror ran a front page splash on “boozy bashes” held in 10 Downing St while the country was in a strict lockdown. Over the following six months, until the publication of a much-delayed report by senior civil servant Sue Gray, a steady drip-feed of further revelations of parties within government was reported by the British media. However the parties only directly led to one resignation, a tearful departure by Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s former press secretary. Stratton had been filmed laughing about the parties in a mock press briefing that was leaked to ITV News, a piece of footage that Boris Johnson said left him feeling “sickened and furious”.

The first fines were announced by the police on 29th March 2022: by mid May 83 people, including Boris Johnson, had been fined for breaking Covid regulations. When we spoke in June 2022, Ian Hislop, editor of British satirical magazine Private Eye and a long-term critic of the prime minister, was keen to make the point that this is an unusual state of affairs. “This is the first serving prime minister to have been found guilty in office of breaking the law,” he said. “It is absolutely extraordinary.”

“This is the man who, just before he was breaking the rules, was pumping out propaganda on his social media saying ‘Rules aren’t just for others. Play your part to beat the virus’,” continued Hislop. “This is a direct quote. He said, ‘If one person breaks the rules, we all suffer’. Then he was doing the exact opposite. It’s not merely breathtaking hypocrisy, it’s this jaw-dropping ability to lie.”

Hislop said that Johnson’s ability to ride out the scandal for so long was aided by the way it played out which, he says, was “extraordinarily elongated and designed to make the public both bored and underwhelmed.” However, Hislop roundly rejected the suggestion often made by Johnson’s supporters that the public was tired of Partygate. “Number 10 tried to encourage the media to say, ‘We’re all bored, what was the big deal anyway?’” said Hislop. “Anybody dealing with the public found out that this wasn’t true. I was recording a television programme [Have I Got News For You] once a week for ten weeks and you would get a round of applause each time you mentioned the word ‘Partygate’.”

The Gray report was published on 25th May 2022. It described “failures of leadership and judgement in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” and said of the parties that “many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.” Gray also revealed that security guards and cleaners had been treated with a “lack of respect” on “multiple occasions” by Number 10 staff.

A YouGov poll published after the report showed 59 percent of Britons thought Johnson should resign over the scandal, but only seven percent thought he would. “Most people would say ‘I couldn’t attend this funeral, I couldn’t go and visit my relatives, I obeyed the rules and I’m still angry’,” Hislop said. “[It doesn’t matter] how many times… junior ministers were wheeled out to say ‘no one cares’, people did care.”

After the publication of the Gray report on 25th May, Johnson told parliament that he had been “humbled by the experience” and took “full responsibility for everything that happened” on his watch. He also said of the parties that he “briefly attended such gatherings” to thank staff working “extremely long hours… for their service”, which he believed was needed to “keep morale as high as possible”. It was now time, he insisted, “to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people.”

Hislop was particularly incensed by the suggestion that it was time to “move on” from Partygate so that the prime minister could tackle other issues. “Why should we move on?” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason to move on and the whole essence of journalism is, as I repeatedly say, to not move on. We had a cartoon in Private Eye of a man running over an old woman at a zebra crossing and he jumps out of the car and says ‘I apologise, can we move on?’ No, we can’t move on.”

“Number 10 tried to set up a narrative in which if we held the prime minister to account for these actions we would have no prime minister and therefore we would have no one to deal with Ukraine or the NHS or the cost-of-living crisis,” Hislop continued. “This is not true. If you get rid of the prime minister you get another one and they do the job. The idea that it’s important for Boris Johnson to move on from his law-breaking activities to running the country is nonsense. It’s important that the country is run, not that it’s run by Boris Johnson.”

Another “specious argument” that drew opprobrium from Hislop was the notion that Johnson needed to stay in his job because there was nobody who could take over. “If people in the cabinet believe that there’s literally no one to do a job that isn’t worse than the one Boris Johnson is doing it’s absolutely ludicrous. I think I could probably go out and find two people just in the street outside now who would do a better job,” he said.

While the scandal clearly infuriated Hislop, it inspired several Private Eye covers. “My favourite was the one where Johnson says ‘Enjoy the four days of partying!’ to the Queen at the jubilee and she replies, ‘It’s a work event’,” he reflected. Yet he said he avoided making jokes based on one of the scandal’s most farcical moments, when Tory MP Conor Burns claimed that Johnson didn’t knowingly attend his own birthday party and that “he was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake”. Hislop said that it suited Number 10 to have the public focus on the birthday party because it was the “one defensible occasion”. “But that was just one gathering in the Cabinet Office… that’s not the party he should have answered for,” remarked Hislop.

Johnson is known to have attended eight of the 15 lockdown-breaching parties investigated by Gray, who controversially didn’t look into an alleged 13th November 2020 party held in the prime minister’s flat which, according to media reports, was organised by his wife to celebrate the departure of former advisor Dominic Cummings and which involved dancing to Abba.

“That he wasn’t held to account [for other parties] is extraordinary,” said Hislop. The focus on the cake event, he said, “allowed everyone to say ‘Oh come on, it was his birthday’… but the bulk of the events were things more along the lines of ‘Get Pissed Tuesday’, ‘Legless Friday’, whatever they might have been called. It was a sea of celebratory rule-breaking, I think quite clearly sanctioned by the prime minister. Either he’s a complete idiot who has no idea what’s going on in his own flat and the office below, or he’s lying. Take your pick.”

It was with Partygate as a political backdrop that the Tories held a confidence vote in Johnson’s leadership on 6th June 2022.  Johnson survived, despite a full 41 percent of his MPs voting against a prime minister who, Hislop suggested, was always an odd fit for the party.  “He’s not a Conservative, he doesn’t want to conserve anything,” Hislop said. “He’s an anarchist. He’s not interested in law and order, the judiciary, any of the country’s institutions. He’s only interested in one thing – the survival of Boris Johnson.”

That survival would soon appear doomed. On 5th July, ministers Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak resigned in the wake of a fresh scandal over the actions of former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. Two days later, after the submission of more than 50 further resignation letters from government officials – many citing the fallout from Partygate – Johnson agreed to resign as prime minister following the election of a new party leader.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #46 of Delayed Gratification

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