Britain’s ‘party elite’ – perhaps better-termed ‘Covid elite’ – were hiding in plain sight throughout the pandemic. Even before the parties, trysts and suitcases of wine were exposed, we knew politicians and government officials were leading radically different lives to everyone else during last year’s extended lockdown.
Trips abroad for ministers when it was illegal for the rest of us to leave the country, protection from ‘ping-demic’, an ‘event research programme’ full of trial parties that happened to align with Whitehall’s favourite freebee events. It wasn’t hard to document because no one was trying to hide it. The laws were written to provide ministers with loopholes and get-out-of-isolation clauses, so they wouldn’t be subject to the same rules as everyone else. If politicians felt funny about this divide, very few choose to speak up. Instead, much of the government flaunted their perks and exemptions: all indication of deep-seeded entitlement, to which politicians and their staff so often seemed oblivious.
But Sue Gray’s report, released today, suggests there was perhaps more awareness of this entitlement than first appeared. Debate will rage over the most egregious revelations from the partygate dossier, but I’m especially taken with the multiple examples showing the party elite were well and truly aware of their status.
Take the garden party on 20th May, to which 200 Downing Street staff were invited and sent an email to ‘bring your own booze’. On the day of the party, former culture secretary Oliver Dowden used the daily Covid press conference to remind the public that ‘normal life as we have known it is still a long way off, and the path to get there is a narrow one’.
It seems that press conference was very much on officials’ minds, with instructions issued to make sure the noise from the boozy gathering could not be heard by the public tuning in:
'On 14 May 2020 at 13.13 No 10 official (2) contacted the Internal Events team to book the garden for the following week stating that '[No 10 Official (1) and [No 10 Official (2)] will go out and get the booze'. A member of the internal events team replied on 15 May 2020 and said '....Sounds like lots of fun.That's fine. Just a reminder about the press conference so just be courteous with sound from 4-6pm'.'
Nor did they want us to see it:
'Following the email, the same No 10 special adviser sent a message to Martin Reynolds by WhatsApp at 14.08 stating 'Drinks this eve is a lovely idea so I've shared with the E & V team who are in the office. Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc'. Martin Reynolds replied 'Will do my best!….''
Another example, on 18th June 2020. ‘Gatherings of two or more persons indoors and more than six outdoors were prohibited’ at the time. But former Downing Street chief Martin Reynolds did not want one of their own to forgo a celebration – in this case, a leaving party.
'[Martin Reynolds] [18:31] "No 10 official (1)'s leaving drinks next week - can we discuss handling!"
[Lee Cain] [18:32] "Yes - not sure how we do it but want to do something"
[Martin Reynolds] [19:01] "Is it safer to do a larger event indoors but with some
people carrying on outside afterwards?"
[Lee Cain] [19:20] "I'm not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be a shame. I don't see how we can have some kind of party though"
[Martin Reynolds] [19:23] "So you are saying nothing for [No 10 official (1)]?"
[Lee Cain [18:32] "I think it's your decision my friend, not mind [sic]! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks"'
But perhaps the most obvious divide between the ‘Covid elite’ and everyone else comes at the end of Gray’s report, which refers to how staff who weren’t the Covid rule-makers were treated by those who were:
'I found that some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly. I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.'
Those most senior in politics were not only designing the Covid rules to their liking – but knowingly breaking these rules when it suited and treating those in a far more junior position with little to no courtesy at all. Elitism in its ugliest form.
This was always likely to occur, when liberty was turned into a rationed resource and power over every aspect of our lives was put into the hands of a select few. That is no excuse, however, for the brazen entitlement that was allowed to brew inside Downing Street, confirmed again by Gray’s report, while everyone else was expected (indeed mandated) to follow the rules.