The media misses the central point about Partygate

Here’s why it matters so much

IT’S NOT the rule-breaking that was the problem, it was the rule-making. That’s the essential point about Partygate. 

We see Boris Johnson’s No 10 flouting rules they clearly felt were ludicrous, inappropriate, repressive, disproportionate and ineffective. Otherwise they wouldn’t have partied as they did, or tried to defend their actions as ‘work’. 

No 10 is the centre of power for hundreds of the most influential people across Government and British society. As an office, not a home, it was constantly visited by everyone from the key SAGE members to Cabinet Ministers – including the key people who influenced and advised on Covid restrictions. Now we know what they thought of the unprecedented repression they forced on the rest of us. 

When they personally had to sacrifice their freedom for their supposed safety, they said, ‘no thanks’.  

During the second lockdown, a very senior figure in No 10 told a colleague of mine, ‘we have no control over what SAGE and the Covid team are doing. They disappear into secret meetings from which we’re excluded and when they emerge, they tell us all what we have to do. But what they are saying to us at No 10 in private, behind closed doors, is very different about the threat to what they’re saying to terrify the public.’ 

If that’s true – and I’m confident it is – we may perhaps have some sympathy for the rule-breaking staffers in No 10 who had heard what the covid experts were saying privately. But none at all for those in Government who put the rules in place.  

When leaders make rules they have no intention of following themselves – and think they can get away with it – that’s one sign that democracy is dying. When there is no effective opposition to it, that’s another. When the process is facilitated by controls on freedom of speech and the use of experts in psychology to influence people without the consent by, for example, whipping up fear, that’s a third. When almost everybody at the top joins in – broadcast and digital media, civil servants, advisers from academia – that’s a fourth.

Almost everybody at the top did join in. Partygate lets the wider political class and influencers off too lightly. 

Boris Johnson and his team have been justly exposed not because they necessarily behaved worse than Keir Starmer or even the champions of lockdown in the media who are now vilifying them, but because they had in their midst one of the most vengeful and meticulous figures in modern politics. It’s an open secret many of the leaks around Partygate are associated with Dominic Cummings, who was careful to keep records and photographs of what went on around him and has repeatedly referenced material he anticipates will be leaked in his blogs. 

Cummings is not exposing Partygate because he thought lockdowns were a bad idea, or even because he obeyed the rules when others did not. On the contrary, he was one of the most ardent champions of harsh lockdown rules and remained so even after he was caught breaking them. He simply wants to vent his spleen for being excluded from power. 

Imagine if a Cummings-type advisor had fallen out with Keir Starmer, who repeatedly called for earlier, harsher lockdowns and whose Labour Party in Wales imposed some of the toughest restrictions anywhere? We already know that Starmer had no respect for the rules he demanded: we have pictures of him enjoying a beer and a curry with – was it 15 or 30? – of his political mates. The claim that this was ‘work’ may get him off the hook with the police since he’s leader of the opposition but would have resulted in any ordinary member of the public receiving summary justice. 

We only know about this because a camera just happened to catch him beer in hand through a window. The investigation which followed has repeatedly uncovered details which the Labour Party had previously denied, such as the presence of Deputy Leader Angela Rayner at the curry alongside Sir Keir and his beer. We were told it was a small gathering until the size of the curry order became known. We were told he continued working after the curry, but Labour’s agenda for the day was unearthed and showed otherwise.    

So, is it likely that this incident, caught by chance, was unique? Or would there have been a catalogue to rival the stories of No 10 had anyone ‘done a Cummings’ to Starmer and Rayner? 

It’s not fair, however, to single out any individual, be it Starmer or Boris Johnson, or Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary and Government ethics chief (I kid you not) who provided a karaoke machine for a No 10 party. They were all part of a massive network of privileged lockdown advocates who behaved in the same way. The flouting of the rules was so widespread and blatant that we now know many were caught, though doubtless more got away with it. 

Nicola Sturgeon insisted that Scotland must be the most masked part of the UK – even though more masking repeatedly seemed to lead to higher case numbers. She was photographed time after time without a mask where her own rules dictated that one must be worn. 

Matt Hancock had to resign as Health Secretary after being caught in an illicit clinch. 

The advocate-in-chief of restrictions, Neil Ferguson, turned lockdown into pantsdown with rule-breakingvisits to his mistress. Adding insult to injury, he then claimed to have resigned from SAGE, but it quickly turned out the resignation was a sham – he’d continued as a key adviser on SAGE’s SPI-M committee all along. Incredibly, he was allowed to get away with it.  

Kay Burley was a ring-leader in the media pack which demanded to know at interview after interview why we weren’t locking down sooner, why harsher restrictions weren’t being implemented. That is, until she and Beth Rigby were caught breaking the tier-2 rules by partying with friends for her birthday.

Piers Morgan shamelessly bullied those who dared to question lockdowns on his show, yet happily went against lockdown advice of only taking essential travel when he jumped on a jet for Christmas 2020 taking a sunshine break in Antigua.

The point is not to single out any individual. What this shows is that rule-breaking was never about one or two hypocritical individuals being caught out. It was a mindset amongst those championing the restrictions that they themselves were above the rules. 

What’s notable is that in none of these instances was there real justification for what happened: these are not cases where people acted in desperation because they were (for example) comforting a suicidal friend, or attending the bedside of a desperately ill relative. These are people breaking the rules that they championed purely for fun. 

It happened across the entire lockdown-supporting establishment – the politicians, the media, the scientists, the civil servants. 

People in the UK have an idea that they elect politicians who form a Government and it runs the country. However, anyone close to Government quickly realises that this picture is inaccurate. In free societies, Governments share power with the civil service, academic institutions which provide advisers such as those on SAGE, pressure groups, supranational bodies, courts, local councils, public bodies like the NHS, major corporations, influencers who set the climate of ideas, the media, and more. Each of these groups can in its way have as much or more power to dictate how the country fares as the elected Government. Ministers discover that often their primary function in Government is to take the blame for the mistakes made by some of these unaccountable bodies, who thus enjoy their power free of responsibility. 

It is a flawed system which should attract greater scrutiny. When all the key voices are captured by one point of view and unite to push the Government into actions which may damage the general good, it can swiftly take us into frightening territory. If the opposition parties join the consensus, that stifles democratic accountability. Problems are made still worse by a growing tendency to dictate that those outside the tent must obey rules made by those inside it, who intend to ignore them personally. We saw all this during the response to Covid.

When those who make the rules believe en masse that they are above them, then poison has entered the bloodstream of democracy

Double standards are one of the key features of a corrupt, autocratic system. Obviously, those who make repressive rules don’t intend to abide by them. They wield power, they are not subject to it. 

In China last November, tennis star Peng Shuai accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. After attracting international media attention, the allegations were first censored by China and then withdrawn, with the suspicion of pressure by the regime. It’s just one of many reports of rape, murder and torture surrounding members of China’s ruling elite. If a powerful man in country like China spots a woman he wants, he takes her and she has no protection – even if she’s a famous athlete. To protest will simply bring more suffering. 

Yet China has a constitution which says these things are wrong and pledges to uphold the rights of victims. It means nothing because the only rules that apply to the powerful are the ones they choose to obey. Indeed, for the ambitious, rule-breaking is encouraged, because it gives those at the top a hold over you. Fall from grace politically and all will be used against you – so you must stay loyal. 

These double standards go hand in hand with totalitarianism.  

Could anything similar happen in the UK? What we have learned over the past two years is that we are in greater danger than we think. The flagrant disregard of the rules by those in power is a danger signal. It follows exactly the pattern that we see in all repressive societies. 

Remember newspaper headlines such as “Wayne Couzens ‘may have abused lockdown powers to arrest and kidnap Sarah Everard’” (Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2021)? A police officer, Couzens was working in the parliamentary and diplomatic protection command when he murdered Sarah Everard – he had finished a shift just hours earlier. Obviously, this appalling and tragic case bears no comparison with Partygate. However, it does show that repressive measures like lockdowns can lead us into some very dark places, encouraging damaged and dangerous individuals to seek positions from which they can act out their fantasies. 

Extreme powers encourage and facilitate the extreme abuse of power. 

In this context, Partygate seems trivial. For all the attention focused on Sue Gray’s report, for all the many days of evidence collecting, all we really have is a few people getting drunk, being sick and spilling wine, which she slams as disrespectful to the cleaners, since they didn’t clear it up. How many of the many journalists who have repeated Gray’s criticism in horrified tones have shown similar disrespect to cleaners in their time, I wonder?  

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss it so lightly. Partygate illustrates how quickly corruption grows when our leaders take steps which are incompatible with the values of a free and democratic society. 

The contempt that No 10 staff showed to their cleaners was the same contempt they showed for all of us. It wasn’t that they left them with wine stains to remove, it was that they enjoyed their power and liberty while we were left powerless and our liberties were removed. That’s why Partygate makes people so angry. 

We should , of course, be angry at all those who behaved in the same way, not just those in No 10. Otherwise we miss the fundamental point.  

A handful of privileged scientists, an elite group of special advisors and civil servants, a cross-party group of political leaders and the most influential voices in the media colluded to hijack liberties and values which had hitherto been the unquestioned right for all in the UK – and they did it while restricting debate and dissent, using fear and tools of behavioural control. 

It wasn’t a Conservative problem, or a Labour problem, it was a ruling class problem. They removed rights that were previously regarded as inviolable from others, thinking they could keep them for themselves. 

Those who did so argue – and most doubtless believe – that it was all justified and for our own good. Yet that belief is belied by their own behaviour. If the rules were needed to keep us safe, why did they break them? What made them immune? If they could decide their own risks for themselves, what justified them in depriving others of the same choices?  

The idea of locking down the nation represents a radical break from any policy of any British Government of modern times. Not only is it so extreme it had never been tried, prior to 2020, it had never even been seriously discussed or publicly debated. To argue for it in a 2019 election manifesto would have been electoral suicide. 

Only weeks before all it happened, it would seemed absurdly far-fetched to suggest it might be around the corner. The restrictions were truly extraordinary measures and should never have been implemented if there was even a scintilla of doubt as to the strength of the case. Yet Partygate shows that our leaders never truly believed in the justification they gave for their actions. That doesn’t make the behaviour of Partygate wrong; it makes the actions wrong.    

Worse, some of those involved would clearly do it all again. 

What we have discovered over the past two years is just how quickly and easily free societies can be corrupted and destroyed.  

Free societies by definition need to be free to survive and thrive. End freedom and you very quickly start to see all the ills of totalitarian societies multiplying in our system. So Partygate is trivial – until you realise what it represents.  

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Jon Dobinson is a co-founder of Recovery and a former Secretary-General of the International Society for Human Rights (UK). Now CEO of Other Creative Ltd, the London-based creative business, his companies have raised millions for charities and causes including Freedom FromTorture, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and 38 Degrees.

Photo: media luvvies looking for taxis after Kay Burley’s 60th party bash… courtesy of the Daily Mirror