An open letter to Boris Johnson: What does “Responsibility” mean?

Boris Johnson Sue Gray

After months of being told we should wait for Sue Gray’s report into “Partygate”, the day of its publication finally came. (Findings of Second Permanent Secretary’s Investigation into Alleged Gatherings on Government Premises during Covid Restrictions. As a token nod to brevity, I will henceforth refer to it as “Sue Gray’s Report”)

Accordingly, the official line from the Prime Minister is now that we should move on to our current priorities, as if the report recommended no further action. However, this is not precisely in line with Sue Gray’s written conclusions:

“The matter of what disciplinary action should now take place is outside of the scope of this report and is for others to consider. Nothing set out in this report can be taken as constituting a disciplinary investigation or findings of fact appropriate for such a purpose. However, I do offer a reflection: while there is no excuse for some of the behaviour set out here it is important to acknowledge that those in the most junior positions attended gatherings at which their seniors were present, or indeed organised.” (Sue Gray’s Report, p37)

“The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.” (Sue Gray’s Report, p36)

Boris Johnson is at least able to take a hint. Within hours of the report’s publication, he was assuring the House of Commons:


“I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.(PM statement to the House of Commons: 25 May 2022)

It was the right thing to say, and we know Boris likes to give a good speech. Equally typically, he gave few details on exactly how he was taking responsibility, except to say that it would not involve his resignation.

So I pose an open question to the Prime Minister. What does “Responsibility” mean to you?

Ignorance is a failing not an excuse

Claiming ignorance is to absolve yourself of responsibility, yet by your own wording, you are taking full responsibility. In that case, you must apologise for your ignorance. You were in a position to know.

These gatherings were organized via mass emails. Often they were arranged by your personal staff (and in at least one instance, your family). They were regular occurrences—a weekly Wine-Time Friday, for example—and you were in the habit of making appearances at such events, thanking staff for their efforts. You’re right that much of the worst behaviour happened after you had left these gatherings, but it seems there was plenty of evidence available from the noise made and the mess left behind to simple office gossip. Your professed ignorance of what happened beggars belief.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you were turning a blind eye to such goings on, tacitly permitting your hard-working staff their after-hours indulgence. In other words, you chose to be ignorant.

On 8 December 2021, you were asked in parliament about an event on 13th November 2020. Your response (emphasis mine): “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”

The Metropolitan Police would come to disagree on your assertion that no rules were broken in Downing Street that evening. Ms. Gray reports on two gatherings for that date. The first was a Wine-Time Friday event doubling as a farewell to Lee Cain at which you made an appearance and gave a speech: there are photographs of you raising your wine glass to him. The second gathering was hosted in your own flat afterwards, discussing the departures of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings with accompanying food and drink.

Why did you choose to give Parliament second-hand information rather than your firsthand experience? You were in a position to explain exactly what the events entailed, yet you omitted that truth. Rather than full responsibility, you took the route of plausible deniability: a dangerous policy.

Sue Gray writes with understated damnation: I am very grateful to those who sought to provide as much information as possible in what I realise may have been a daunting experience given the public profile of this investigation. It was also unfortunately the case that details of some events only became known to me and my team through reporting in the media. This is disappointing.” (Sue Gray’s Report, p4)

The law and the science

Of course, you did not receive a fine on this occasion, nor indeed on any occasion but that of your surprise birthday cake. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is forgivable for the Prime Minister to have broken the law on even a single instance, I will return to the issue of full responsibility.

In total there were 126 fines issued across 8 separate events within a 12 month span. If you are to take full responsibility, then you must acknowledge that Downing Street was breaking the law, on average, ten times a month with your (explicit or implicit) permission.

There are other legal quibbles which you could raise in self-absolution. Downing Street is not a public place and so not all of the lockdown rules for gatherings applied. However, the responsible person looks not at the word of the law but the intent. Those guidelines were based on science. During the course of the pandemic you have repeatedly told us that you were following the science, and where you loosened regulations, you recommended that individuals exercise their own judgment.

Whether or not a gathering was in a public place and whether or not it was for the purpose of work, the science was unchanged: Any contact between individuals increased the risk of spreading the virus and extending the pandemic.

With that in mind, the events at the end of 2020 are particularly troubling.

On 5th November, you took the country into its second national lockdown, and on 30th November you issued the following guidance:You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.” On the second of December, you lifted lockdown by dividing England into three tiers based on their transmission rates, with London in tier two.

Despite this, your staff’s plans for several end of year events continued, unabated. On 15th December, you contributed to a virtual Christmas quiz. The staff remained in their separate offices, but failed to observe social distancing as they gathered around laptops and got drunk. The following day, London’s increasing rates of infection moved the city into tier 3.

On 17th December, another virtual Christmas party was held in the Cabinet Office at Whitehall. All its due precautions for social distancing were entirely undermined by the two leaving events happening simultaneously in Downing Street and Whitehall that evening. Social distancing broke down in at least one event, individuals went from one building to the other and a handful of revellers from both events gathered in Number 10 to continue drinking into the early hours of the morning.

On 18th December, there was the final Wine Time Friday of the year for which several festive activities had been planned. Simultaneously, Number 10 was holding meetings to discuss what Covid restrictions must be enforced over Christmas. Those working were disturbed by the noise of those drinking.

Your work policies and behaviour gave scant priority to your guidelines but even less to their science.  The 18th December event was rebranded on the day to an “End of Year Meeting with wine and cheese.” Thus, it was not a Christmas party, but a ‘legitimate’ work event: one which crowded its attendees into a small area and lasted for several hours.

Throughout December, the festive spirit rose in Downing Street, just as the Covid infection and death rate was rising in the rest of the country. On 4th January, you were forced to announce a third national lockdown. At that time, you said to the nation:

“I want to say to everyone right across the United Kingdom that I know how tough this is, I know how frustrated you are, I know that you have had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus.

But now more than ever, we must pull together.” (Prime Minister’s address to the nation: 4 January 2021)

Do you take responsibility for allowing Downing Street to rest on its oars? Ten days after this exhortation, Downing Street hosted a supposedly “virtual” leaving event which would result in at least one fine from the Metropolitan Police.

In your statement to Parliament on Wednesday, you highlighted the achievements of your staff in relation to the pandemic: the PPE, the testing system, the vaccine development and roll out. Your pride in these is justified, but it must now be tempered with an acknowledgment that your staff undermined our most desperate measures against Covid: the lockdowns. The culture in Downing Street was one that could only aid the spread of Covid and may have contributed (whether directly or indirectly) to the need for later lockdowns.

That, in full, is what you are responsible for. What remains is to understand how you will be taking responsibility for it. How will you atone for your mistakes, how will you compensate those affected and how will you ensure that such infractions can’t happen again?

The example you lead by

For that last part, at least Sue Gray’s report observes that the procedure for raising concerns is better defined and that clearer lines of accountability have been created. Guidance on the consumption of alcohol has been issued to all government departments and Number 10 has clarified that Wine Time Fridays have now been banned. There has also been a massive changeover of staff, though I am unclear on how much of this was a response to Sue Gray’s investigation and how much of it was serendipity as key members of staff departed for other reasons.

It remains to be seen what effect these new policies will have on the culture within Downing Street. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is your reluctance to give your own account. When you were again asked to clarify what happened on 13th November, you said: “I don’t believe I can improve on what Sue Gray has had to say.”

You should have more faith in yourself, Prime Minister. Sue Gray stated that her information was limited as she had to stop her investigation so that the police could carry out theirs. Your first person account can only improve on her version, but it seems you still choose plausible deniability and to disappoint Ms. Gray.

What are you doing to atone? You have paid your fine. That is taking responsibility for your involvement at one event. How are you taking responsibility for the other 125 infractions? For your self-professed ignorance of conduct within Downing Street? For the distress caused to dozens of people at the time and thousands now. For the people who did resign over this before you ever commissioned Sue Gray’s report. You have said you won’t resign. So what will you do?

Indeed, what can you do to compensate the people who have been hurt by this? For that, after all, is what accountability should be about. You have apologised to the cleaning staff and security for their mistreatment during these events, and I am glad to hear it. But I wonder how you can begin to make amends to the British people who are now questioning the value of their own sacrifices. These include: the frontline and key workers who also worked tirelessly through the pandemic without morale boosting Friday drinks; the businesses who took massive financial losses because they had to close; the people in need who went without their usual support network; the bereaved who gave up the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones or comfort them in their last days and hours.

Previously, these people could take solace in the fact that they had done the right thing. Now they are looking at your example and wondering why they didn’t just ignore the rules and pay the fine. For those left traumatised by the lockdowns, it will be difficult to come to terms with these revelations.

This is a dereliction of your duty to the British people, and there is no realistic way you can make amends for it. That is why a resignation would be entirely appropriate.

The argument against resignation is that we are now facing other crises and there is no point upsetting the power structure over past events. However, if we are to wait until all crises in the world are resolved, we will never change Prime Minister again.

Instead, what concerns me as we prepare for potential conflict with Russia and a definite cost of living crisis is how we can trust our own government. You have shown that you will make confident assurances with little to no verification. You have set a precedent of making decisions without fully understanding the impact on our way of life. You can ask us to endure and sacrifice, but we can no longer expect that you will be showing that same fortitude.

If the need arises, would you be capable of uniting the country for another national effort? Or, under your leadership, will the British people fracture as they put personal interests ahead of their country. Are you preparing to take full responsibility for that failure as well?

Image Credits:

  • filip-mishevski-7x4f8AHNlco-unsplash: Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash


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