Labour leader Sir Keith Starmer, Sue Gray and Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
Today was forecast by the politicians and pundits to be the most exciting day for many years in the House of Commons.
MPs would get their first whiff of the contents of the much talked about Sue Gray Report .
The Partygate scandal had been the talk of the tearooms and bars for months.
But, like so many of what the media builds up to be the biggest parliamentary story since Guy Fawkes tried to blow the place up, this one turned out to be a damp squid which had fizzled out before tea time.
Despite the number of bottles of beer, wine and spirits sunk, cakes eaten, toasts made and karaoke numbers sung at number 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnston walked away unscathed.
The man who said he knew nothing of parties at his office cum residence stuck to his preposterous story despite the fact that Sue Gray revealed that someone had been sick on the carpet and two people got into a fight at one gathering.
If that’s not a party, what is, enraged Labour MPs asked.
There were pictures aplenty, including one of Mr Johnston himself pouring the drink, but he insisted that this was simply a case of work and socialising combining on WTF – Wine Time Friday.
The fact that this debate was going to be what the Westminster in-crowd call “box office” was clear from the outset when the Speaker invited those who wished to be elsewhere to leave the Commons Chamber after Prime Minister’s Questions.
Nobody left their green leather seat. They were told to settle down.
The Prime Minister began: “I am grateful to Sue Gray for her report today, and I want to thank her for the work that she has done. I also thank the Metropolitan police for completing its investigation.”
He added: “I want to begin today by renewing my apology to the House and to the whole country for the short lunchtime gathering on 19 June 2020 in the Cabinet Room, during which I stood at my place at the Cabinet table and for which I received a fixed penalty notice. I also want to say, above all, that I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.
“Sue Gray’s report has emphasised that it is up to the political leadership in No. 10 to take ultimate responsibility, and, of course, I do. But since these investigations have now come to an end, this is my first opportunity to set out some of the context, and to explain both my understanding of what happened and what I have previously said to the House.
He added: “Hundreds of staff are entitled to work there, and the Cabinet Office, which has thousands of officials, is now the biggest that it has been at any point in its 100-year history. That is, in itself, one of the reasons why the Government are now looking for change and reform.
“Those staff working in Downing Street were permitted to continue attending their office for the purpose of work, and the exemption under the regulations applied to their work because of the nature of their jobs, reporting directly to the Prime Minister.
“These people were working extremely long hours, doing their best to give this country the ability to fight the pandemic during—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, I appreciate that this is no mitigation, but it is important to set out the context.”
That was the second interruption and the debate had barely begun.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle called for Order – “I appeal to the House: I expect the statement to be heard, and I want everybody to hear it. I want the same respect to be shown to the Leader of the Opposition afterwards. Please: this is a very important statement. The country wants to hear it as well.”
The Prime Minister replied: “Mr Speaker, I am trying to set out the context, not to mitigate or to absolve myself in any way.
“The exemption under which those staff were present in Downing Street includes circumstances where officials and advisers were leaving the Government, and it was appropriate to recognise them and to thank them for the work that they have done.
“I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service—which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership, and is particularly important when people need to feel that their contributions have been appreciated—and to keep morale as high as possible. I am trying to explain the reasons why I was there, Mr Speaker.
“It is clear from what Sue Gray has had to say that some of these gatherings then went on far longer than was necessary. They were clearly in breach of the rules, and they fell foul of the rules. I have to tell the House, because the House will need to know this—again, this is not to mitigate or to extenuate—that I had no knowledge of subsequent proceedings, because I simply was not there, and I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations have unfolded.
“Frankly, I have been appalled by some of the behaviour, particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff. I would like to apologise to those members of staff, and I expect anyone who behaved in that way to apologise to them as well.
“I am happy to set on the record now that when I came to this House and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times, it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell—the House will note that my attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules—but clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I had left, and at other gatherings when I was not even in the building.
“So I would like to correct the record—to take this opportunity, not in any sense to absolve myself of responsibility, which I take and have always taken, but simply to explain why I spoke as I did in this House.
“In response to her interim report, Sue Gray acknowledges that very significant changes have already been enacted. She writes: ‘I am pleased progress is being made in addressing the issues I raised. Since my update there have been changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability and now these need the chance and time to bed in’.
“No. 10 now has its own permanent secretary, charged with applying the highest standards of governance. The entire senior management has changed. There is a new chief of staff, an elected Member of this House who commands the status of a Cabinet Minister. There is a new director of communications, a new principal private secretary and a number of other key appointments in my office. I am confident, with the changes and new structures that are now in place, that we are humbled by the experience and we have learned our lesson.
“I want to conclude by saying that I am humbled, and I have learned a lesson. Whatever the failings—[Interruption.] Whatever the failings of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office throughout this very difficult period—[Interruption.] And my own, for which I take full responsibility.
“I continue to believe that the civil servants and advisers in question—hundreds of them, thousands of them, some of whom are the very people who have received fines—are good, hard-working people, motivated by the highest calling to do the very best for our country.
“I will always be proud of what they achieved, including procuring essential life-saving personal protective equipment, creating the biggest testing programme in Europe and helping to enable the development and distribution of the vaccine that got this country through the worst pandemic of a century.
“Now we must get our country through the aftershocks of covid with every ounce of ingenuity, compassion and hard work. I hope that today, as well as learning the lessons from Sue Gray’s report, which I am glad I commissioned—I am grateful to her—we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people: standing firm against Russian aggression; easing the hardship caused by the rising costs that people are facing; and fulfilling our pledges to generate a high-wage, high-skill, high-employment economy that will unite and level up across the whole of our United Kingdom.
“That is my mission, that is our mission, that is the mission of the whole Government, and we will work day and night to deliver it.”
Sir Keir Starmer’s response was polished and in many ways predictable. He wanted the PM to resign – and to do that now.
He said: “The door of No. 10 Downing Street is one of the great symbols of our democracy. Those who live behind it exercise great power, but they do so knowing that their stay is temporary. Long after they have gone, that door and the democracy it represents will remain firm and unyielding. But Britain’s constitution is fragile. It relies on Members of this House and the custodians of No. 10 behaving responsibly, honestly and in the interests of the British people. When our leaders fall short of those standards, this House has to act.
“For months, Conservative Members have asked the country to wait—first for the police investigation, which concluded that this Prime Minister is the first in our country’s history to have broken the law in office, and then for the Sue Gray report. They need wait no longer. That report lays bare the rot that, under this Prime Minister, has spread in No. 10, and it provides definitive proof of how those within the building treated the sacrifices of the British people with utter contempt. When the dust settles and the anger subsides, this report will stand as a monument to the hubris and arrogance of a Government who believed it was one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else.
“The details are stark. Five months ago, the Prime Minister told this House that all guidance was completely followed in No. 10, yet we now know he attended events on 17 December. At least one of those attending has received a fine for it, deeming it illegal. We know that on 18 December, an event was held in which staff “drank excessively”, which others in the building described as a “party”, and that cleaners were left to mop up the red wine the next day.
“On 20 May, as a covid press conference was taking place, one of the Prime Minister’s senior officials was told, ‘Be mindful; cameras are leaving. Don’t walk about waving bottles’.
“It is now impossible to defend the Prime Minister’s words to this House. This is about trust. During that 20 May press conference, the British public were told that normal life as we know it was a long way off, but that was not the case in No. 10. Even now, after 126 fines, they think it is everyone else’s fault but theirs. They expect others to take the blame while they cling on. They pretend that the Prime Minister has somehow been exonerated, as if the fact that he only broke the law once is worthy of praise. The truth is that they set the bar for his conduct lower than a snake’s belly, and now they expect the rest of us to congratulate him as he stumbles over it.
“No. 10 symbolises the principles of public life in this country: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. But who could read this report and honestly believe that the Prime Minister has upheld those standards? The reason the British public have had to endure this farce was his refusal to admit the truth or do the decent thing when he was found to have broken the law. This report was necessary because of what Sue Gray describes as ‘“failures of leadership and judgment’ for which senior political leadership ‘must bear responsibility’.
“It is that failure of leadership that has now left his Government paralysed in the middle of a cost of living crisis. The Prime Minister has turned the focus of his Government to saving his own skin. It is utterly shameful. It is precisely because he cannot lead that it falls to others to do so. I have been clear what leadership looks like.”
The Prime Minister’s next words incited howls of derision from across the floor of the House – “I have not broken any rules, and any attempt ..”
Mr Speaker intervened: “Order. Can I just calm it down? Quite rightly, I wanted to hear the Prime Minister; the same goes for the Leader of the Opposition. Those who do not wish to hear, please go and have a cup of tea or something.”
Keir Starmer continued: “I have been clear what leadership looks like. I have not broken any rules, and any attempt to compare a perfectly legal takeaway while working to this catalogue of criminality looks even more ridiculous today, but if the police decide otherwise, I will do the decent thing and step down. The public need to know that not all politicians are the same—that not all politicians put themselves above their country—and that honesty, integrity and accountability matter.
“Conservative Members now also need to show leadership. This Prime Minister is steering the country in the wrong direction. Conservative Members can hide in the back seat, eyes covered, praying for a miracle, or they can act to stop this out-of-touch, out-of-control Prime Minister driving Britain towards disaster. We waited for the Sue Gray report. The country cannot wait any longer. The values symbolised by the door of No. 10 must be restored. Conservative Members must finally do their bit. They must tell the current inhabitant, their leader, that this has gone on too long. The game is up. You cannot be a lawmaker and a lawbreaker, and it is time to pack his bags. Only then can the Government function again. Only then can the rot be carved out. Only then can we restore the dignity of that great office and the democracy that it represents.”
The Prime Minister replied: “All I will say to him is that he, throughout the pandemic, was not leading many thousands of people in the fight against coronavirus. He was sniping from the sidelines and veering from one position to the next, and today he has done it again. Week after week, he could have come to this House and talked about the economy, about Ukraine, about the cost of living—but no, Mr Speaker: time after time, he chose to focus on this issue.
“He could have shown some common sense, and recognised that when people are working very hard together, day in day out, it can be difficult to draw the boundary between work and socialising. And yet, after months of his frankly sanctimonious obsession, the great gaseous zeppelin of his pomposity has been permanently and irretrievably punctured by the revelation that—he did not mention this— he is himself under investigation by the police.
“I am not going to mince my words. I have got to say this. Sir Beer Korma is currently failing to hold himself to the same high standards that he demanded of me. It is true. He called for me to resign when the investigation began. Why is he in his place?”
The Prime Minister demanded that the Labour leader should “at least be consistent, and hold himself to the same standards. He is still there, and so is the deputy Leader of the Opposition.
“I apologised when the revelations emerged, and I continue to apologise. I repeat that I am humbled by what has happened, and we have instituted profound changes throughout No. 10, but in view of the mess in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has found himself, it would now be sensible for him, too, to apologise, so that we can all collectively move on.
“That, I think, is what the people of this country want to see above all. They want to see leadership from this House of Commons, and leadership from both parties, in dealing with their priorities. That is why we are focused on getting through the aftershocks of covid, that is why I am proud of what we did to roll out the fastest vaccine campaign in Europe, and that is why I am proud that we now have the lowest unemployment in this country for 50 years.
“That is what the people of this country want. I appreciate that Sir Keith has his points to make, but I think that, overwhelmingly, the will of this country is for us now to say thank you to Sue Gray and for us collectively to move on.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, London.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford and MP Joanna Cherry QC.
One MP who refused to move on was the leader of the Scottish National party, Ian Blackford, one of the very few Scots voices to be heard today.
He told the Commons: “As I speak, the public are poring over the sordid detail of what went on—out of the public eye, behind the high gates and walls of the Prime Minister’s residence. The report is damning. It concludes that many gatherings and many individuals did not adhere to covid guidance; that ‘events…were attended by leaders in government’ and ‘should not have been allowed to happen; that ‘junior civil servants believed that their involvement…was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders’; that there was an ‘unacceptable lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff; and, crucially, that ‘the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture’.
“That leadership came from the top, and the Prime Minister—in the words of the report—must bear responsibility for the culture. A fish rots from the head.
“The Prime Minister’s Dispatch Box denial of a party taking place on 13 November is now proven to be untrue. He was there on 13 November, photographed, raising a toast, surrounded by gin, wine, and other revellers. The charge of misleading Parliament is a resignation matter; will the Prime Minister now finally resign?
“This Prime Minister has adopted a systematic, concerted and sinister pattern of evasion. Truthfulness, honesty and transparency do not enter his vocabulary. That is just not part of his way of being, and it speaks for the type of man that he is. Credibility, truth and morality all matter, and the Prime Minister has been found lacking, time and again. The Prime Minister can shake his head, but that is the reality. Ethics have to be part of our public life, and ethical behaviour has to be at the core of the demeanor and the response of any Prime Minister.
“The Prime Minister brings shame on the office, and has displayed contempt, not only to the Members of this House but to every single person who followed the rules—those who stayed away from family, those who missed funerals, those who lost someone they loved. So I hope that when Tory Members retire to the 1922 Committee this evening, they will bear in mind the now infamous Government advertisement featuring a desperately ill covid patient. It says: ‘Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules’.
“If those Tory Members do not submit a letter—if they do not remove this Prime Minister—how will they ever look their constituents in the eye again?”
The SNP’s Joanna Cherry said: “Neither I nor my Edinburgh South West constituents would wish to live in a state where the Government of the day can influence the police in the exercise of their duty to investigate without fear or favour, so we are puzzled as to why the Prime Minister did not receive questionnaires in respect of three gatherings for which other people in No. 10 received questionnaires. We are also puzzled as to why the ABBA party in the Prime Minister’s flat has never been investigated by either Sue Gray or the Metropolitan police. What can be done by way of an independent investigation to assure me and my constituents that the Metropolitan police have not been nobbled?”
Like Sir Jimmy Saville OBE the Prime Minister gets away with and is protected from truly offensive behaviour.
This has been an utter charade, that show without a, shadow of a doubt how Saville and Johnson are so similar in their ability to secure protection against their behaviours.
And there’s nothing it seems the Great British public can do.