A year in which this government has been increasingly dogged by political scandals ends with a story about an office Christmas party becoming a test of the prime minister’s integrity.
The leaked video, which shows Downing Street staff joking that “it wasn’t a party… it was cheese and wine”, has resulted in the resignation of Allegra Stratton, the adviser who was caught on film. But Number 10 have been unable to close the story down. A different strategy, and an apology for breaking guidance, might have made a difference a week ago. Instead, Number 10’s denials over the past week have increased fury among the public and the prime minister’s own party.
Boris Johnson’s decision to ask his cabinet secretary to lead an inquiry into what happened now places huge pressure on Simon Case’s shoulders, but may not solve the fundamental problem. This issue is no longer just about what breaches of guidance may have happened, but how this prime minister chose to deal with the allegations when they came to light.
Calling the cabinet secretary in to look at a matter has for many decades been a classic government reaction to accusations of wrongdoing. Such inquiries often take too long and, as a result, are often seen as way for governments to sidestep tricky headlines. But there is little reason that this inquiry cannot report before Parliament rises next Thursday – and it is very important that it does so.
Even though the prime minister claims little knowledge of the events, except the ‘assurances’ he was given over the last week, the cabinet secretary or others in No10 must already know what happened. If they were not present when any party or gathering occurred, someone in their staff will have been there or was copied into relevant emails or whatsapp messages. Number 10 is bigger than it looks; but not so big that a party could be held in the building with nobody noticing. It has also been more than a week since the story broke, so even those not involved at all should already have a good idea what happened.
Notwithstanding the political stakes, for the sake of staff in No10 – some of whom must now be fearing for their careers – this inquiry should not hang over them. It would be poor leadership from the civil service to have officials put through that in order to avoid a political scandal.
The cabinet secretary’s inquiry appears limited in scope: supposedly a disciplinary issue for those involved in organising this particular gathering. But the handling of this story over the last week means it now matters a great deal who knew what and when. If more senior people – including the prime minister and cabinet secretary – knew at the time about the plans, then this issue is nott only about which junior staff actually organised the party. If any No10 staff face sanctions it must be very clear that they are not taking the fall for anyone else higher up.
It also matters because the prime minister and his spokesperson have, throughout the week, either implied or denied there was any party. Johnson now says he had ‘repeated assurances’ that no party took place. If it is found that the prime minister was aware of any party then he risks being accused of misleading Parliament – the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Douglas Ross, has said that if the prime minister did so then he should resign. These are now high stakes that investigations cannot afford to dodge.
Simon Case may be the right person to look into any breaches by No10 staff – civil service discipline should be handled by the civil service. But the wider questions that must be answered put the cabinet secretary in a deeply uncomfortable position of investigating his colleagues – and even the prime minister. Not least because it also seems implausible that Case did not attend meetings over the last week where No10 decided what line to take and how to respond to the media.
This situation yet again shows up problems with the current model for how ethics and standards are investigated. If the investigation widens, as it ought, into Johnson’s role – regarding his knowledge of or attendance at any party, accusations about any other get togethers in the No.10 flat, or investigations into the prime minister’s or Downing Street’s denials over the last week –then in theory the proper person to adjudicate would be Lord Geidt, as the independent adviser on the ministerial code. But Geidt can only investigate with the prime minister’s say so, and as this story rolled on over the past week, and blew up with the leaked video, there was no means for MPs or anyone else to force an investigation until the prime minister ordered one. This again shows why there needs to be a fully independent adviser, who can properly investigate the government on ethics and standards issues as several bodies, including the Institute for Government, have argued.
This inquiry is no longer about whether someone in government broke the rules. It has now about how the government reacts when it is accused of doing so. The prime minister has said unequivocally that trust in government matters to him. Trust in government will now be severely tested by how this inquiry is conducted, the answers it produces, and how the prime minister responds.