The House of Commons in the UK is a formidable chamber. Its oak-panelled and mahogany fittings lend it an intimate feel where on green leather seats Ministers and Members of Parliament sit shoulder to shoulder, speaking in a culture that may be chaotic across the four metres that separate Her Majesty’s government from the opposition benches.
That four metres might as well be four miles, so diametrically divergent are the opinions as to what happened in Downing Street and Whitehall these past months.
While 65 million Britons were locked down, unable to mourn loved ones, following rules and staying well apart from others — with steep police fines issued on the spot to make sure Covid restriction rules were followed — 10 Downing Street hosted many parties.
For all of the expected drama that the report by senior civil servant Sue Gray might have been expected to contain, the intervention by London Metropolitan Police that its detectives were now investigating the comings and goings, booze and birthday cakes, canapés and chaos, removed the coup de grace from the highly anticipated report.
Parts of the report were not published due to that Scotland Yard investigation. Perhaps that has allowed Johnson to survive through to the weekend.
Up to this, he had weathered calls from opponents and some in his own party to resign by saying people needed to wait for the report.
Closer to the brink
Gray’s demurred understatement has now tipped him closer to the brink.
“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time,” she noted.
Gray also pointed to an “excessive consumption of alcohol” at Downing Street, which certainly seems at odds with the deeply sobering situation faced by doctors and nurses in hospitals and intensive care units up and down Britain as the parties were underway behind the most famous black door in the world.
Instead of swallow drinks, these doctors and nurses were putting intubation pipes down the throats of gravely ill patients, hundreds of whom were dying on any given day that the gathering were underway in Downing Street and Whitehall.
Gray was tasked with looking into what has become weeks of a steady drip of stories about events in Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdown, with reports of aides stuffing a suitcase full of supermarket alcohol and dancing until the early hours.
In the early hours of too many nights, too many patients died alone, passing on without comfort while the Southern Comfort flowed freely in Whitehall.
The accounts of more than a dozen gatherings — including a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden — have provoked widespread public anger. On the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, there was a loud and drunken party in the Downing Street basement. While Queen Elizabeth sat alone, a stoic and graceful national figure at her husband’s funeral, there were some who were nursing bruises from breaking the swing of Johnson’s son in the back garden of his official residence.
Gray’s report said of 16 allegations of rule-breaking gatherings at Downing Street or other government offices, 12 were under investigation by police.
And there are at least 300 images in the hands now of Scotland Yard, showing officials mixing and mingling and laughing — laughing in the face of every Briton who kept calm, followed the rules and did what they were told.
“As I have noted,” Gray parsed, “a number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did.”
Naturally the opposition parties are up in arms, demanding Johnson’s resignation, urging government colleagues to give him a final heave-ho.
Sir Kier Starmer, Labour Leader and the Leader of the Opposition, was almost forensic in his rigorous question of Johnson, who parried with bluff and bluster at odds with the contrition needed by a man whose administration seems like a bachelor party.
“For the past two years the British people have endured a collective trauma,” he said. “Revelations about the PM’s behaviour have forced people to relive what happened. And some people have felt guilt — guilt that because they did not ignore the rules like the Prime Minister, they missed the chance to see a dying relative.”
“There are members opposite who know that they know the prime minister is incapable of it. The question they must now ask themselves is what are they going to do about it,” he added.
And that was just the opening act.
Ian Blackford, the Scottish Nationalist Party’s Westminster leader, got himself thrown out of the chamber by repeatedly accusing the PM of lying.
How about that for drama? But wait, there’s more.
Theresa May, the former prime minister, a woman deposed from office by Johnson backers who were determined to get their version of Brexit done, stood. Had the PM either had not read Covid rules, or did not understand them — or thought he was exempt, she asked with a moral stature that seems so removed from these present times.
This drama has many more sequels.