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20 May 2022

Politics and Society

The Met press release yesterday described their investigation as ‘thorough and painstaking’.

We have to take their word for it. From the outside, their approach looked more like the old Private Eye line: ‘that’s enough Partygate, Ed’. They just decided they had issued enough fines, and would declare job done.

Even more baffling, as the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord McDonald made clear in interviews, was the rationale for some fines and not for others. Outsiders have questions: why was Rishi Sunak fined for turning up for a cabinet committee with added birthday cake, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case not? Have staff been fined for turning up for a leaving drink, where the Prime Minister gave a few remarks, but was deemed to be working while they were socialising? Or was it because a genuine ‘work event’ morphed into something else, the moment the Prime Minister walked out of the door?

It could all have been better handled. The Met could have said that, as they understood the nature of ‘work events’, they would take action against the senior people there – who gave permission, explicit or implicit, for the illegal event to go ahead. Even without that, they could have explained their fining rationale better (or indeed at all) yesterday. The government – ministers and civil servants – should have made clear from the start that all politicians and senior staff found in breach would be fined.

But while the Met has now given us a bit of an answer to the questions of ‘what’ offences were committing, and we may learn more from leaks about ‘who’ received FPNs, the big question of ‘how’ a law-breaking culture became so prevalent in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office has yet to be answered.

In her redacted January report, that culture was castigated by Sue Gray. She called out: ‘Failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.’

The big question, when we see her final report, is what light she sheds on who was responsible for that culture. On the civil service side, that leads to questions about the role of the two Cabinet Secretaries, neither of whom seem to have been fined, even though reported parties were taking place in or near their offices. Those are the people who are responsible for providing leadership for the civil service.

Current Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, might argue that by the time he took over from Lord Sedwill that culture had already been established. But, as someone brought back in government to oversee the Covid response, surely he had no excuse not to understand the regulations.

The Prime Minister cannot argue that someone else was there when the culture of Number 10 was set. Will the Gray report say anything that suggests that the Prime Minister – and his wife – were responsible for setting a tone in Downing Street where partying and drinking were deemed a normal part of a day’s work? Or will the buck be allowed to stop with the moved out Chief of Staff, Dan Rosenfeld, and the moved on (and potentially up) former Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds.

The fate of Reynolds raises further questions for the leadership of the civil service. It is rumoured that he is in lined up to become our next Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. If he really is responsible for the lapse in standards in Number 10, which has brought disgrace on both politicians and the civil service, the civil service leadership needs to take a long, hard look at whether he should not be asked to leave the Diplomatic Service rather than pack his bags for Riyadh. His only defence otherwise is that he was simply taking his cue from his political master. But even that should not be an exoneration for bad judgement.

Even Sue Gray does not have the final word. Once her report is out, the baton then passes to the Commons Privileges Committee. It looks as though the police have concluded that, as Adam Wagner put it, that the Prime Minister was legally present at a variety of illegal gatherings. The Committee has to judge whether the Prime Minister is sufficiently unaware that he did not spot these were parties at Number 10, nor have any concerns that the rules might be being broken. That is what he told the House he had been assured was not happening – and that is what the Committee will be asked to judge over the charge that he misled parliament.

The Committee can call for evidence and examine witnesses to allow them to get to the bottom of who knew what, when. That means the saga could drag on over the summer depending on the timetable they set.

The Prime Minister will take comfort from the fact that this has dragged on forever, and a combination of the Met and events have removed the immediate pressure from his backbenches. And meanwhile he will point to the reorganisations within Downing Street in February and between Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, announced today, as showing he has got a grip on some of the confusion that Sue Gray claimed (not totally plausibly since the lines of accountability within No.10 and the Cabinet Office were actually pretty clear) was one of the causes of Partygate.

Partygate could yet blow up and take down the Prime Minister sooner rather than later. The handling has created a lot of grievances – and Dominic Cummings still waits in the wings. But the events of this week have made that less likely.

Now he looks a bit more secure, the Prime Minister needs to focus on the long-term threat to his government – the failure to get to grips with the cost of living crisis. In that endeavour, it’s unclear whether his new rebooted support operation will help him do that.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.

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