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Boris Johnson’s carefully-worded apology over allegations of parties held during the Covid-19 lockdown has been viewed by Downing Street staff as an attempt to absolve him of blame by the official inquiry while others take the fall.
The way senior figures responded to the first reports of Christmas celebrations last year left people in more junior roles feeling dejected, PoliticsHome understands.
Staff are believed to be critical of the communications strategy, which saw the Prime Minister reject claims there had been any breaking of coronavirus restrictions, only to then apologise in the Commons last month after his then-spokesperson Allegra Stratton was seen joking about a party in a leaked video.
Since then the mood is said to have worsened after further revelations have come to light, including the news this week that two leaving parties took place on 16 April last year, the night before the Queen was forced to sit alone at her husband Prince Philip’s funeral.
A former special advisor said that when the first story of a Christmas party, complete with food and drink and a secret Santa game, in Number 10 broke, ex-colleagues still working in the Downing Street press office staff told them they had “never felt such a bad atmosphere”.
“They felt that nobody was coming in to do a five minute team meeting and say ‘this is really difficult but you’re going to be okay, and we’ll make sure of that’,” they explained.
“There hasn’t been any leadership in that way.”
It is understood that the government’s response to continued allegations of parties, which has deflected blame onto civil servants, has also contributed to a sour atmosphere among staff – despite many of them having attended the parties themselves.
An aide described a chronically dysfunctional workplace at the top of government. “It points to that strange environment of politics where the traditional hierarchies and leadership requirements of a big place of work are just missing,” they said.
When reports first emerged of alleged lockdown-breaking events in early December last year, Johnson insisted to the media that “we followed the guidance throughout and we continue to follow the guidance”.
Three days later his official spokesperson reiterated the defence that “guidance has been followed at all times”. But those denials caused consternation among staff, who knew the line was not going to hold, according to one former special adviser.
“Just before Christmas when it was really bad, when the party stuff was really gathering momentum, people in Number 10 were basically completely dejected and to be honest, almost more frustrated by what now seems to be a Johnson trait of ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore,” they told PoliticsHome.
“Every day that goes by under that tactic it gets worse until it’s too late, and as we see this week, it doesn’t hold because he ends up apologising in the chamber.
“I think there are people in that building who can look into their crystal ball and see that that’s what’s going to happen if [Johnson takes] that approach, but they aren’t being listened to.”
After launching an investigation led by the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who was forced to step aside from the inquiry following reports he himself would be implicated over a gathering in his department, the Prime Minister has deferred all questions about the more than a dozen alleged parties to the senior civil servant Sue Gray, who is now heading up the inquiry.
Only when the scandal snowballed this week with allegations he briefly attended a “BYOB” party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020, organised by his own principal private secretary, did he offer an explicit apology with a statement ahead of Prime Minister’s Questions
The apology received sharp criticism from media lawyer Adam Wagner who said it was a “carefully worded and obviously lawyered” attempt to distance Johnson from any perceived illegality.
“This is very much about [Johnson’s] personal liability – he is implicitly denying he knew what the event was, had seen the email or had anything to do with it,” Wagner tweeted.
Comments Johnson is said to have made in the Commons tea room after his apology appeared to take back much of what he said, with claims he told MPs he was taking the blame for others.
The fate of those others involved – the civil servants, advisors and political staff in Downing Street – now rests on the results of Gray’s inquiry, even more so after the much-criticised decision of the Metropolitan police not to start a criminal investigation into potential rule-breaking until after she reports back.
But there are already suggestions that the senior civil service troubleshooter, who made her name as director of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, will not deliver a damning verdict upon anyone.
The terms of reference for the inquiry are to “establish a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings”, and while it will also “establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted”, Gray’s job is not to pass judgement.
If the results suggest the ministerial code has been breached, then it will be down to Johnson himself to decide if the matter should be referred to his ethics adviser Lord Geidt for assessment.
It means Number 10 is ultimately in control of the narrative, and attempts to frame the conclusions of the inquiry, which is not due for at least another week, have already begun.
On Friday The Times reported that Gray is expected to conclude there is no evidence of criminality and that Johnson will escape with a “rap on the knuckles”.
Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings criticised the briefing, suggesting it will lead to claims Downing Street is attempting a “whitewash”.
He tweeted it was a “very bad look” for such details to have made their way into the media, adding it means the “wait for Sue Gray” line used by government “doesn’t fly”.
Cummings, who has been highly critical of his former boss, believed there should be a “purge” of staff. According to The Sun, Johnson has been told by his Cabinet “he needs to change the culture and clear out the staff” in Number 10.
But one former special adviser to Downing Street believed the issue lies higher up, and that things will only change if Johnson leaves office.
“Administrations operate in a way that reflects those who lead them”, they said.
Despite widespread anger among MPs over how the allegations over gatherings have been handled, Johnson’s departure seems unlikely for now.
Just five have publicly called for him to stand down, a tenth of the number required to even begin the process of ousting him.
The latest party allegations, which have led Downing Street to apologise to the Queen may have sharpened minds, however.
One MP now said colleagues were now openly talking about the end of the month, when Gray’s inquiry should be completed, and the 26 January coronavirus review when current restrictions are likely to end, as being the crunch moment for letters to go in.
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