NEIL DARBYSHIRE: Parties? When I met up with Boris in Downing Street, the main thing I saw was a lot of people working tirelessly in a time of national crisis… No one said they had to be miserable all the time
Like a modern-day Nemesis, the vengeful goddess of Greek myth, Harriet Harman subjected Boris Johnson to the full force of her pent-up wrath.
There was no chance of redemption for this well-meaning sinner; no allowance for the fact he was trying to steer the country through an unprecedented crisis; and no thought that others may have let him down.
Here was a 50,000-word laceration from Ms Harman and the other members of the Privileges Committee enquiring into whether he misled Parliament over Partygate. Though dressed up as a dispassionate, quasi-judicial analysis, it all came across as distinctly personal. Not so much an exercise in justice as an act of retribution.
There was no smoking gun to prove he knowingly misled the Commons when he told MPs he thought the gatherings fell within Covid rules under the ‘work bubble’ exemption. The committee’s main justification for finding him guilty appears to have been that ‘he must have known’. Ms Harman, a former solicitor, should surely know that is hardly a credible case for the prosecution.
Most of their conclusions were matters of opinion rather than fact.
Boris Johnson is joined by (left to right) Lee Cain, Dominic Cummings, Jack Doyle, Chris Whitty and Matt Hancock as he chairs an update on the Government’s preparedness on the Coronavirus in his office in Downing Street, February 28, 2020
Boris Johnson and his staff pictured with wine in Downing Street garden in May 2020
Whether Mr Johnson spoke in good faith when he said he believed Covid rules had been adhered to. Whether trying to keeping up staff morale was an essential work activity.
The committee cloaked themselves in the language of the law but this was more of a pound-shop inquisition than a fair hearing – and with no right of appeal.
Yet they used it to recommend truly vindictive penalties – not just a 90-day suspension from the Commons but also the withdrawal of the parliamentary pass normally granted to ex-MPs. It’s hard to think of any modern politician who has been the subject of more visceral animosity than Boris Johnson. His enemies didn’t just want him out, they wanted him crushed.
He is loathed by the Left after routing them in their Red Wall heartlands at the last Election; by irreconcilable Remainers for leading Britain out of the EU; and by many in his own party for being an arriviste with no interest in greasing up to Tory greybeards.
There has been disdain from the largely anti-Tory Civil Service, which didn’t share his enthusiasm for change, and derision from those who pose as champions of the downtrodden from their metropolitan ivory towers. Yet, for all his imperfections (maybe even partly because of them), the voters loved him. And the more they warmed to his charm and optimistic vision, the more the established cliques of Westminster feared him. As his boosterish one-nation message struck a chord with disaffected voters, those with most to lose from the status quo being overturned became ever more determined to drag him down.
But Boris was never going to go quietly. It’s simply not in his nature. So before the committee had the chance to make their conclusions public, he came out swinging: at Ms Harman’s perceived hostility, at Sir Bernard Jenkin’s hypocrisy – having apparently broken Covid rules himself – and more generally at the committee as ‘a kangaroo court’.
Boris Johnson making his opening statement as he attends a Parliamentary Privileges Committee hearing, March 22, 2023
Boris Johnson gestures after receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, March 19, 2021
Having now read the report, it’s easy to see why he stepped down voluntarily as an MP, denying the committee the satisfaction of suspending him. And there is surely some truth in his belief that this was little more than a show trial, the verdict of which was decided before the committee even began to sit.
Its usual chairman, Sir Chris Bryant, recused himself because he’d previously questioned Mr Johnson’s integrity. Ms Harman, equally critical on social media, was a bizarre replacement.
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She may well know a lot about misleading Parliament, having been a key member of the Blair government that took this country to war under false pretences. But without prejudice she is not.
Within Labour, discrediting Boris has been an obsession bordering on the deranged. Having failed their heartland voters for decades, they should have looked inwardly and blamed themselves for the 2019 Election disaster. Instead their rage was directed at the man who humiliated them.
He was cast as a buffoon, a pathological liar, a creature of the hard-Right (preposterous, but the universal smear now directed at anyone with remotely conservative views) and a man who couldn’t be trusted with the levers of government. The last of these is particularly rich coming from a party that tried to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell into Downing Street.
Nowhere has all this animus been more concentrated than during the Partygate saga. With help from the almost comically treacherous Dominic Cummings, Labour and its allies sensed their opportunity had come. They wanted Mr Johnson not merely dethroned but destroyed.
There seems little doubt that some Covid rules were broken at Downing Street. But whether Boris was the instigator, or even aware that these gatherings were not permitted within the concepts of a ‘work bubble’ and ‘group of six’ is much less clear.
He has consistently claimed – and still does – that his senior officials told him these gatherings were within the rules. I have no reason to doubt him.
This is partly because, by a strange turn of events, I was present at what could be described as an impromptu ‘gathering’ in the Downing Street garden. It was before the final lifting of Covid restrictions and both the Cabinet Secretary and Boris’s chief of staff were at the same table.
If they thought such gatherings were illegal, why didn’t they protest? And why did they continue sitting there chatting away? More of that presently.
There has certainly been no shortage of investigations into this vexed affair. First came the Scotland Yard inquiry, as a result of which Mr Johnson received a single fixed penalty notice for breaching lockdown rules.
Boris Johnson stepped down as an MP with immediate effect after receiving the Partygate report ruling he misled Parliament over lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street
Committee Chair Harriet Harman kicked off the hearing in March by emphasising the panel leave party affiliations at the door
Even that seemed harsh, involving as it did a surprise birthday greeting from his wife and a cake that never even came out of its Tupperware box. Even more ludicrous was the fine handed to Rishi Sunak, who was merely in the room when the cake was produced.
Boris Johnson Partygate report – key points:
- The Privileges Committee said that if he had not resigned last week Mr Johnson should have been suspended from the Commons for 90 days
- The Privileges Committee said Boris Johnson committed a ‘serious contempt of the House’ through his Partygate denials
- That section would have taken into account his attacks on the committee as a ‘kangaroo court’ in recent days
- Only Keith Vaz, the Labour MP who was banned for six months over a drug-fuelled gathering with male prostitutes’, has been barred for longer
- The Committee suggested Mr Johnson should be barred from having a parliamentary pass, which is normally available to former MPs.
Next came the probe by Whitehall ethics watchdog Sue Gray, who we must now conclude was a Labour supporter all along, having subsequently accepted the job of Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. Could she truly have been an honest broker?
Her report was scathing about the culture of drinking and casual indiscipline in Downing Street, suggesting it came from the top down. And although she may have been biased, there was plenty of evidence that some gatherings in Downing Street went beyond the bounds of proper behaviour.
Her report fuelled increasing disquiet among Tories and contributed to the final rebellion that forced the party’s greatest electoral asset out of office.
The most salient question in this whole farrago is whether that punishment fitted the crime. Was his alleged flouting of Covid rules deliberate and so egregious that Boris had to go?
Some will say, understandably, that any breach – advertent or not – by the PM of the rules that he imposed on everyone else should be a resigning matter. Those who lost loved ones, were forced to have curtailed funerals, or were unable to see their elderly relatives in care homes, naturally have emotional reasons to feel aggrieved. He was in overall charge and therefore the man with whom the buck stops
But there is a more charitable view of Partygate for those who wish to see it. I’m in no position to exonerate Mr Johnson, but I’d say that at least some of the criticism of him is based on a lack of understanding of the geography and function of the Downing Street estate.
The question is often asked: How could he not realise all these alleged breaches were going on in his own house and garden?
From the outside, 10 and 11 Downing Street look like a couple of houses in a standard-sized Georgian terrace.
Boris Johnson reacts as he leads a virtual news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic at 10 Downing Street, January 26, 2021
Boris Johnson (center) gestures to Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right) on March 19, 2020
Boris Johnson is seen on his morning run on June 15, 2023 in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell
Inside they feel more like the Tardis, the front door opening into an interconnected warren of offices, reception areas and other rooms in which around 200 people work – mainly cheek by jowl. It also serves as the family homes of the PM and Chancellor. The gardens, arranged roughly in an L-shape, cover fully half an acre.
Most of those who work there are surprisingly young – researchers, advisers, press officers and so on. Some indeed, are police officers, none of whom appear to have observed any infractions of the Covid rules.
As far as spreading or contracting Covid is concerned, the staff were undoubtedly much safer in the gardens than indoors.
I have known Boris since working with him at the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s. I can’t claim an intimate relationship but our paths have crossed from time to time since then, and I have always enjoyed his company.
One day in late March 2021 he rang to ask if I would be interested in becoming his director of communications at Downing Street.
A few days later I pitched up at No 10 to discuss the matter. Some coronavirus restrictions were still in place but soon to be lifted.
The vaccines were beginning to come on-stream, it was immediately before the Easter recess and there was something of an end-of- term feeling in the air.
Having spent about 45 minutes talking together in his office, Boris had to go off and see some visiting foreign dignitary. One of his senior backroom staff, whom I know well, suggested we talk further about the job in the garden.
First chief of staff Dan Rosenfield joined us at a large table, then later Boris and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. I didn’t have a tape measure but social distancing was roughly being observed.
Other fairly senior civil servants were also around, yet none seemed the least bit concerned about the nature of the gathering, and there was no attempt to stop it.
Boris Johnson leaves his house in London on March 22, 2023 ahead of facing a grilling over whether he misled Parliament about rule-breaking parties in government buildings during the pandemic
Boris Johnson walks through the Parliamentary Estate on his way to Portcullis House on March 22, 2023
At one point, Chancellor Rishi Sunak walked past with his wife and small children, emphasising the point that this was a home as well as a workplace.
Boris’s wife, Carrie, their then-toddler son Wilfred and dog, Dilyn, were also out, enjoying the early evening sunshine.
Staff members were separately grouped in other parts of the garden. Some drink was being taken and there was a definite sense of exuberance and excitement among the younger ones, no doubt excited that their efforts were starting to pay off and hopeful that the virus was finally on the run.
However, it seemed to me the rule of six was being broadly observed and no children’s swings or slides seemed to be in any danger of imminent destruction. I don’t recall the Covid rules saying everyone had to be miserable all of the time.
If any rules were being broken, I can’t believe it was done (as some have suggested) in the cynical belief that Downing Street was above the law.
Here was a group of people who had been working punishing hours to combat an unprecedented threat to our national security, while much of the population had been enjoying a paid holiday. Instead of being in their cramped offices, they came out into the garden. As far as I’m aware, I was the only non-staff member and had a legitimate work reason for being there.
Immensely flattered as I was, I didn’t take the director of communications job in the end, largely because I didn’t think I’d be much good at it. But these images came back strongly while listening to deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner last Saturday, gloating over Mr Johnson’s departure.
‘He basically was partying and lying to [people] when they couldn’t see their loved ones, and that’s unforgiveable,’ she said.
But there’s a strong smell of hypocrisy over her presumption of moral superiority.
Boris Johnson gestures as he attends a media briefing on the latest Covid-19 update in the Downing Street briefing room, November 27, 2021
Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak visit the headquarters of Octopus Energy on October 05, 2020
Miss Rayner flatly denied being at the notorious ‘Kormagate’ gathering at the Durham Miners’ Hall in April 2021, when about 20 Labour Party workers and friends enjoyed a curry together at a time when communal meals were banned. It was only when this paper found proof of her attendance that she admitted it. Was her first response not a lie, either by her or those on her behalf?
And what of Kormagate itself? It was clearly planned as it had been entered in Sir Keir Starmer’s official schedule days before. Beer was drunk and a meal taken in breach of the regulations. Many will think that if both the local Durham MP and Police and Crime Commissioner hadn’t both been party stalwarts, that the chief constable would have taken a tougher line. As it was, she did nothing.
Personally, I don’t begrudge Starmer and Rayner a beer and a sit-down takeaway after a long day on the road. It’s their patent double standards that leave a sour taste.
Yes, Boris made mistakes, and plenty of them. But he was – is – a remarkable campaigner, had a commendable record in government at an intensely difficult time and, crucially, is a vote-winner.
And contrary to popular opinion, I believe he desperately wanted to do his best for his country.
That his party failed to defend him against the slings and arrows of his enemies is, in my opinion, greatly to their discredit.
Their lack of courage reminds me of one of my favourite Boris story intros from his time as Europe Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
Describing some craven British capitulation to Brussels bullying he wrote: ‘Not since the waters receded from the primordial swamp have so many spineless life-forms been seen in one place.’
I fear the Tories will live to regret their own lack of backbone. And the country has been robbed of the chance to see what more he could have achieved – for now, at least.
His tormentors may be congratulating themselves on having driven a stake through the heart of his political career.
But if there is one thing I have learned about Boris over the years, it’s never to underestimate his powers of recovery.
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