I’m one of the last people on the planet who wants to revisit “partygate”, but one niggling detail of the fallout still bothers me.
Boris Johnson — as the world knows — received a fixed penalty notice for a gathering in the Cabinet room on his birthday three years ago. Rishi Sunak — the teetotal chancellor that afternoon — was issued with the same fine. Yet another powerful figure, prominent in all the photos was not.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary seemed as baffled as I was when the fines were issued. Having been poised to communicate his reaction (alongside that of the PM and his chancellor) I found myself asking him to check his junk folder for a missing email. There wasn’t one.
For some strange reason the Metropolitan police drew different conclusions about three men who were at the same meeting at the same place and the same time. The unelected mandarin was let off or overlooked and no journalist has bothered to ask Scotland Yard why.
Now the head of the civil service is missing out the Covid Inquiry. He was signed off sick for "a few weeks" just as the proceedings started heating up and though I’d join everyone in wishing him a speedy recovery, I do hope he is able to appear before the enquiry concludes (in 2026, or possibly later).
Shouldn’t every leader be entitled to trust his or her comms chief to have their back?
Some readers won’t care whether he makes it to the hearings. All they crave is the further castigation of a pantomime villain called Boris Johnson. So called “evidence” from highly compromised sources is taken as confirmation of his almost exclusive culpability in what went wrong, and those critics have had a field day listening to today’s testimony from Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings.
But if this inquiry places all the blame on one man it will be doing us all a disservice. Boris Johnson won’t be in No10 when the next crisis strikes so Baroness Heather Hallett owes it to everyone to identify the systemic failings and the contribution of a wider cast of characters handling the UK’s response to Covid.
I wasn’t in government at the time but I recognise some of the fault lines the former Director of Comms and self-proclaimed “Chief Adviser” focused on today. Boris Johnson hates confrontation which can lead to him vaguely agreeing with two people proposing very different courses of action. I know he was genuinely tortured by the idea that a libertarian like him had to order a lockdown, telling people to close their businesses, stay at home and avoid their families. That he agonised before doing so isn’t that surprising. In some ways — despite the consequences — it’s a healthy trait.
But what struck me most listening to both Cain and Cummings alongside the absent Cabinet Secretary copied on most of their cosy WhatsApp correspondence was how handicapped Boris Johnson was by his top aides when the pandemic struck.
Others have pointed out how vulgar those exchanges were between Cummings, Cain and Case (the three C’s if we were to emulate their lexicon). The language was relentlessly vile. They rant about being overwhelmed, with Simon Case — the supposed custodian of all that is meant to be best about British bureaucracy — moans that he “can’t cope”, wants to “scream” and “go home”.
So park Boris Johnson for now, not least because he will have his own day at the Covid inquiry. Choose your favourite PM of all time and imagine him or her with the three C’s running the show behind them.
Do they emerge as calm and professional, conscious of the privilege of their positions and the responsibility of their roles? Would you really want a Cabinet Secretary who had never run a department? Would you want every special adviser reporting to Dom Cummings figure rather than strengthening their Minister to provide independent challenge to No10? Shouldn’t every leader be entitled to trust his or her comms chief to have their back not ganging up with others to undermine them? The paradox today is that one powerful figure is off sick whilst two other figures have shown us that — whatever we think of Boris Johnson — every PM of every political persuasion deserves better than that.