Partygate: How it Started and Why it Matters

The lax approach to Covid laws in Downing Street wasn’t just an affront to the law-abiding public unable to see loved ones during the pandemic, even at funerals. Because the Partygate participants were decison-makers and implementers it surely meant the workplace rules were not properly communicated to the country. And the blame for the Downing Street culture lies directly with Boris Johnson.

How Partygate Began

Remember this picture?:

Exhibit A: Downing Street soiree 15/5/20, originally published by the Guardian, provenance unknown

Well, this WASN’T a party apparently:

Exhibit B: Excerpt from Private Eye 1572 (no link, it won’t persist, but quoting this as it’s more fun to read than Sue Gray’s interim report which confirms the facts)

But of course it was a party. It was drinky-poos after work, with cheese, as Dominic Raab actually admitted right at the start of an interview with the BBC! Evidently Raab thought that was allowed, but it wasn’t. The ongoing Beergate investigation hangs on that precise point.

The rules changed many times over the course of the pandemic. There’s a handy summary in Sue Gray’s interim report, Annex B, p.10. A relevant point is that a gathering (of any size) in May 2020 had to be essential for work purposes (see Exhibit C). By the time of Beergate (30/4/21) it only had to be reasonably necessary.

Exhibit C: Excerpt from Sue Gray’s interim report

And not only was the wording of the rules stricter at the time of Cheesegate. Covid was also more dangerous at that time because no-one had yet been vaccinated. By the time of Beergate most of the adult UK population had had at least one jab.

Obviously, if Beergate is being investigated as a possible breach of the Covid restrictions, so should be the wine and cheese evening in the Downing Street garden on 15/5/20.

But there are other reasons why Cheesegate needs closer scrutiny.

Cheesegate Set a Precedent

Let’s have another look at the photo from 15/5/20. The man gesturing (or holding up a large invisible object) to the right of Boris Johnson is Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS) at the time.

A few days after the Cheesegate gathering, on 20/5/20, Martin Reynolds sent an infamous email saying:

“Socially Distanced Drinks! [OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE-No 10 ONLY]

After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening,

Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze.”

Exhibit D: Text of Martin Reynolds email of 20/5/20, as quoted in a BBC report

What on Earth was he thinking?

Well, I put it to the jury that (1) the Cheesegate event had put a few noses out of joint, what with the higher-ups having had such a pleasant soiree in the garden and Reynolds wanted to make things right with the staff, and (2) Reynolds thought gathering for drinks and nibbles outside was perfectly OK, because his boss was there (not to mention the Health Secretary and his “communications adviser” Gina Coledangelo, no longer working according to the Mail, incidentally, since they were there to “debrief the PM” and clearly aren’t doing that). Because that’s the way the world works. If the boss looks at their watch and heads back to the office, you drink up. If they stay for another one, you feel free to do so as well.

There may, of course, have been other events, but from the evidence we have at present, Cheesegate started the rot. Soon there were wild parties all over Westminster. As happens often in life, one thing lead to another, and pretty soon there are nappies to be changed. Figuratively speaking. Or perhaps in Boris’s case, sometimes also literally.

And who was the organiser of Cheesegate? Difficult to argue it wasn’t the man in charge, whose garden it was. And isn’t organising an event a £10K fine? Johnson may be culpable, even though he might argue that he is still personally working with Reynolds and Cummings in the photo. (Though why are his wife and child also there?).

The Met should definitely investigate, IMHO.

Why Partygate Matters

It’s been said many times that Partygate showed those who made the rules breaking the rules virtually everyone else was following, often at great emotional cost. It’s an insult. Leaders are supposed to set an example, not be made an example of!

That’s true, but Partygate caused a more practical problem. It’s one thing for Johnson to act as if the rules only apply to himself, and not the general population. But once he corrupts those who work for him, it becomes much more difficult for them to implement the rules. Which was a key function of government at the time.

As a widening circle of staff in Downing Street and government departments learned from their bosses that it was OK to party, more and more people must have experienced cognitive dissonance in the detail of enforcing the lockdown rules: writing guidelines and press releases, answering queries and so on. Would you tell someone to clamp down hard on behaviour similar to your own the night before?

In particular, it seemed to me during UK lockdowns that little thought was going into how to make workplaces safe. Perhaps an attitude emanated from Downing Street that it was just too difficult to prevent the spread of Covid in workplaces, and it would just have to be accepted.

Some have suggested that the rules were daft. If people are working together the virus will spread, so they might as well socialise as well, it is said. That makes some sense, but those weren’t the rules. If they had been they’d possibly have been thought through (though they might not have been very popular among those isolated by being unable to either work or socialise; and why increase an existing, if necessary, risk of viral transmission?). We could have had the idea of work “bubbles” (bubbles hadn’t been implemented in the UK at all at the time of Cheesegate, of course), but these would have been small groups of colleagues. There wouldn’t have been one for the whole of central government, for example, with people from different departments mixing, as in the PM’s garden.

The rules against socialising may have been problematic and in some circumstances fairly pointless, but that’s no reason to break them. By doing so himself, and, by his example, encouraging and enabling his staff to do so, the Prime Minister undermined attempts to make the rules work in the whole country.

The UK’s lockdowns were interminable. Case numbers declined only very slowly, preventing earlier relaxation of restrictions. This purgatory was in part caused by the Prime Minister’s personal behaviour. By Partygate.

17/5/22, 6:25pm: Added a short paragraph noting that at the time of Cheesegate no-one had been vaccinated, whereas by Beergate most adults had been.