Partygate is the toxic tale that simply won’t go away and there are now strong suspicions the establishment is pursuing a vendetta against Boris Johnson.
Today is exactly one year since Sue Gray published a report that did enormous damage to his premiership. Now she’s about to become Chief of Staff to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Partygate was a disaster – it dominated the news, destroyed one of the most popular Prime Ministers in history and left his critics so addicted they simply can’t give up now.
The Cabinet Office – at the heart of government – has opened up a new front, with allegations about illegal gatherings at Chequers. Is that a good use of public funds and precious official time?
I wasn’t there when the fridge was full and the bottle openers busy, nor when someone advised Boris he could tell Parliament “there was no party”.
By the time I joined the team, a police investigation was already underway, the media was relentless and Sue Gray was getting ready to deliver what someone close to her described as an “excoriating” verdict.
The police – following the letter of the law and investigating specific allegations – only found Boris at fault on one occasion.
One afternoon in the Cabinet Office, the most senior figures in government were about to have a meeting about Covid. One person in the room should not have been there, an external contractor.
The rest were key workers – not only allowed but required to be at work. The issue of whether anyone raised a glass or not was by the by. There was nothing in the guidelines about alcohol. The teetotal Chancellor, now Prime Minister himself, was also fined.
Whereas the police went in search of a breach, attached it to a perpetrator and then punished the individual, Sue Gray did not name any of the offenders.
She described the breaches, hinted at lewd and deeply offensive behaviour, then pinned it all on the “leadership”, as if an abstract noun could break the law or behave immorally.
In not naming civil servants, she ensured all the public blame would be attributed to the PM. She didn’t collar her boss, Simon Case, nor did the police fine the Cabinet Secretary for being at the same event as the PM or his Chancellor.
As the inevitable became imminent, the tension began to rise. “Psycho Sue” was referred to as “destroyer of the nation”, who was trying to “do us in”.
Boris was wrestling with war in Europe, crashing from Covid into a cost-of-living crisis, trying to get a new generation of nuclear power stations off the ground and manifesto promises back on track after a global pandemic.
He often said we’d get back to things properly once he was “acquitted of war crimes” or “cleared of genocide”. As he saw it, the media had been “cheated of a scalp” over the police inquiry and so looked to Sue to “deliver the bullet”. He was so cross
by the eve of publication, I had to take drastic action to talk him down.
About four of us were in the room working on the speech he would deliver in response to her report, when he grew hysterical – shouting, swearing and ranting.
Junior officials didn’t know where to look. The speech writer was in despair. They all looked to me – who first met Boris four decades ago – to calm him down.
What he needed was a bucket of water or a slap, but times have changed since the latter was widely accepted and you can’t do either to the most powerful person in the country.
So I said: “Boris… Boris… Boris… Look at me, here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna order a drone strike. We’re gonna take out Sue Gray.”
Let me stress that this was not a serious proposition. No one contemplated taking any action – violent or otherwise – against the civil servant. Sue Gray is happily alive and well and on her way to becoming Chief of Staff to the Labour leader. Yes, the person we were all meant to trust with a quasi-judicial verdict is now signed up to work 24/7 to help Sir Keir get into No10.
Anyway, it worked – Boris calmed down, finished his speech and told Parliament the following day: “I understand the anger. I get it and I’ll fix it.”
Parts of Sue Gray’s report were a real shock to him. I could tell he had no idea about some of the shenanigans she documented: vomit on the carpet, sordid couplings on the sofa in the room I inherited when I became his comms chief, and countless incidents of young, entitled and drunk people being rude to staff.
When he was done in the Commons, I took him round to offer a direct private apology to the cleaners, custodians, mail room staff and security. All said, without exception: “You’ve never been rude to us, sir.”
It was Sue Gray who first told me Harriet Harman would be a good choice for the “kangaroo court” that is currently pondering (at great length) whether Boris knowingly misled Parliament.
We don’t need to know what Harriet Harman will do next. She’s already been deputy leader of the Labour Party – the role occupied by Angela Rayner, who describes Tories as “scum”.
Imagine putting your fate in the hands of someone institutionally opposed to you. It doesn’t seem like the due process and fair trial the UK was once famous for.
I did once get pretty drunk with Boris. It was great fun. But it was the only time I saw him get a little p***** and guess what, it was more than a decade ago, at City Hall. Never at No 10. Yet a year after Sue Gray shared her findings, we are still waiting for another Labour supporter to deliver her verdict and – perhaps – the final, fatal bullet.