The prime minister was furious at PMQs this week. Now that an investigation’s underway, where does the Cabinet Secretary come in?
The prime minister’s fury appeared directed at the leak of the video showing No.10 staffers trying to defend revelations about the Christmas-party-that-wasn’t from inquisitive journalists at a mock press conference – in the very Downing Street suite that was supposed to hold regular on camera press briefings.
Unless it was some elaborately staged scenario, of the sort you get in job interviews – ‘imagine we had held a party in lockdown last week, how would you defend its compatibility with the lockdown rules’ – it was clear that the No.10 staff there both knew there had been a party, and could not find a credible ‘line to take’ on it. Allegra Stratton’s nervous giggles, which appear to have cost her her job, showed her dawning realization that being the front woman for this No.10 was going to be a thankless task.
So Cabinet Secretary Simon Case is being asked to investigate whether there was a party at No. 10. That looks like the easy part: he could possibly wrap up that investigation in an afternoon.
But that is not the only question that his investigation needs to answer. For the last week the Prime Minister, and a horde of other ministers until they went on a post-video work-to-rule, had loyally defended the government, on the basis that they had clear reassurances that the ‘guidance was followed’, and thus that no lockdown-breaking party had taken place on 18 December 2020.
This is where it gets extremely difficult for Case.
First, the Cabinet Secretary needs to establish whether the Prime Minister, who it is now confirmed was working in Downing Street that day, was really unaware of a party going on in another part of that rather small building. It’s conceivable – just – that he was completely oblivious to it. If Case finds any reason to believe that the Prime Minister did know about the party, it would be hard for him to conclude anything other than the Prime Minister knowingly misled Parliament – an egregious breach of the ministerial code.
Second, assuming the Prime Minister was an unknowing as he has made out, Case needs to establish who gave the Prime Minister the assurances of which he spoke in Parliament, and on what basis they did so. The Prime Minister usually has a team to brief him before PMQs, and other public appearances, who test out lines to take under pressure. Who was in those discussions? Why did they tell the Prime Minister he could assure Parliament that there was no rule breaching party?
And even if those people were similarly unaware of what went on in Downing Street, there is then a wider question about the integrity of the people working there.
People with good access, then if not now, to Downing Street have clearly been willing to spill the beans to journalists. But why did nobody inside the machine raise the alarm when they first heard the Prime Minister’s denials? Why did no one point out that ministers were being fed a misleading line to take?
And was the Cabinet Secretary himself really so uninterested in what had been going on in Downing Street, and so unaware, that he should not have been telling the Prime Minister that he was running huge risks sticking with an untenable line?
This is one reason why the instant solution of asking Simon Case to investigate will satisfy nobody. If he exonerates No.10 and the Prime Minister, or finds a convenient lowly scapegoat to offer up to the massed ranks of the media, it will look as though he has placed his civil service duty to serve the government of the day above the public interest. Case’s credibility, already questioned in his role as Cabinet Secretary after unconvincing performances over previous doubts about his willingness to ensure that rules are followed at all times in No.10, would be damaged further.
But, as a civil servant, the alternative looks even more difficult. The ramifications of him finding that senior officials in No.10, and the Prime Minister, had deliberately lied, misled their colleagues and misled the media, are dire: he would effectively be pushing the Prime Minister out of office.
In those circumstances, it is possible that the most likely outcome is – in line with many other cabinet office inquiries – that this one drags on (despite the implausibility of that). The Prime Minister and Case can then hope that this investigation can be quietly buried by a series of events in the new year when Christmas parties past are no longer on anyone’s minds.
This underlines the impossible conflict of asking the top civil servant to conduct this sort of investigation. Fine, if we knew it was just a case of ill-discipline by a bunch of civil servants and special advisers; but the moment a serving civil servant, whose day job is to make the government function for ministers, is charged with the task of investigating them, the system breaks down.
Moreover, while the Prime Minister said at his press conference that Case could range beyond the narrow remit he appeared to be given, to look at other rumoured parties, it is far from clear that he really meant it. This is another case, as with so many others, where the investigator needs licence to set the terms of the inquiry – not the investigated.
And finally, if Case were to find that the ministerial code had been breached, the formal power to sanction lies with the minister who looks most likely to have breached the code – the Prime Minister. If he felt he could carry on, Conservative MPs would have to decide whether Case’s fundings warranted a no confidence vote.
This sorry affair, which seems to have started with an unwillingness of No.10 to come clean either with the Prime Minister, or with Parliament and the public, underlines yet again that we need a more robust way of upholding rules. That view is reinforced by even more recent revelations from the Electoral Commission’s investigation of the funding of No.10 refurbishment.
Labour has proposed a new, more independent, integrity and ethics commission to investigate code breaches. But sorting this out cannot wait for a change of government.
By Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe.