The writer is a Conservative politician and was Downing Street chief of staff 2017-19
This has been a depressing few days for anyone who cares about standards in public life.
First came the news that the Metropolitan Police “partygate” investigation had identified 12 illegal events, with a total of 126 fixed penalty notices issued. The prime minister himself attended six of these events, although for reasons that are not entirely clear he was fined for only one of them.
Three Downing Street employees interviewed by the BBC revealed that parties took place “every week” and that the prime minister knew all about them. “He wasn’t saying ‘Can everyone break up and go home?’ ” said one, “he was grabbing a glass for himself.” This suggests that Boris Johnson misled parliament on December 8 last year when he implied that he was as shocked as everyone else at the idea that his staff were partying while the rest of the country was in lockdown.
Sue Gray’s report, when finally published, then set out evidence of behaviour you might expect at a stag do, not at the heart of government, “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”, and proof that some of the prime minister’s most senior advisers knew that what they were doing was wrong. His principal private secretary Martin Reynolds emailed a colleague boasting “we seem to have got away with” holding drinks in the Downing Street garden.
I spent two-and-a-bit years working in No 10. I care deeply about the institution and find it deeply depressing that its reputation has been so comprehensively trashed by the lack of seriousness of the current occupant. During those two years — doing a difficult job under the most extraordinary pressure — I experienced nothing but kindness from the people who opened the door when I arrived at some ungodly hour each morning, cleaned my office and brought me meals if I had no time to go down to the cafeteria. I cannot believe these decent, hard-working people were abused by some of those the prime minister brought in.
People ask me if this would have happened under Theresa May. Of course not. Nor under David Cameron, Gordon Brown or any other modern prime minister. But this prime minister doesn’t believe the rules apply to him. He has created a culture where others were allowed to behave as if rules don’t apply to them either.
We have heard lots of apologies, but the prime minister is not really sorry — it’s clear he still doesn’t think he has done much wrong. A few hours after the latest apology, he was telling us he thought he was right to say goodbye at leaving drinks. People were prevented from being at the bedside of dying relatives while he was raising a glass.
Depressingly it looks as if he is going to get away with it, just as his senior staff predicted. Some Conservative MPs have had the courage to speak out. Most appear to think that being fined by the police for breaking a draconian law you introduced is not serious enough to warrant resignation — even though nearly 60 per cent of the public think that Johnson should go. Business leaders must be watching with incredulity. If they had been caught overseeing this behaviour, they would have been out overnight.
And don’t let anyone tell you it’s time to move on, that it’s all a bit trivial. This isn’t about a few drinks after work or a birthday cake. It’s about whether those who make our laws should obey them. It’s about whether telling the truth to parliament matters. It’s about the culture at the heart of government and the UK’s reputation. Call me old fashioned but these things matter.
Maybe if the privileges committee confirms that the prime minister misled the Commons, his MPs will finally run out of patience. Maybe we’ll have to wait for the general election. But whenever he is evicted from No 10, whoever takes over has a big job to do restoring standards from the nadir to which he has dragged them.