Like many other people involved in politics I have been waiting for the Sue Gray report. Of course, Murphy's law has struck and because of the requests to her by the Metropolitan Police, only a summary has been published.
It also came out while I was campaigning in Southend, and I heard about it on the radio while driving home to Cumbria, where I arrived in the wee small hours of this morning and went straight to bed. When I dragged myself back out of bed this morning it was to go into a round of calls and meetings which took up the entire day until well into this evening, hence the delay in my posting anything on the subject. (Most of my posts over the past 48 hours prior to this one were scheduled at the weekend.)
We do not yet know what the Met will say about the specific events they are investigating. I entirely agree with those MPs who demanded that when it becomes available the complete report must be published in full and I am glad that this was agreed. But what Sue Gray has published is quite enough to confirm, if any confirmation were needed, that Downing Street was not following the rules which we were all required to follow, and which most of us did follow.
Her report includes these paragraphs:
"No 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office were at the centre of the Government’s response to the pandemic. Tight knit groups of officials and advisers worked long hours under difficult conditions in buildings that could not be easily adapted as Covid secure workplaces."
"Those challenges, however, also applied to key and frontline workers across the country who were working under equally, if not more, demanding conditions, often at risk to their own health. It is important to remember the stringency of the public health regulations in force in England over the relevant periods and that criminal sanctions were applied to many found to be in breach of them. The hardship under which citizens across the country worked, lived and sadly even died while observing the Government’s regulations and guidance rigorously are known only too well.
"Every citizen has been impacted by the pandemic. Everyone has made personal sacrifices, some the most profound, having been unable to see loved ones in their last moments or care for vulnerable family and friends."
It is with that context in mind that Sue Gray made her initial limited findings, which included the following:
i. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify.
ii. At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.
iii. At times it seems there was too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public. There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.
iv. The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. Steps must be taken to ensure that every Government Department has a clear and robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace."
The gatherings within the scope of this investigation are spread over a 20-month period – a period that has been unique in recent times in terms of the complexity and breadth of the demands on public servants and indeed the general public. The whole of the country rose to the challenge. Ministers, special advisers and the Civil Service, of which I am proud to be a part, were a key and dedicated part of that national effort. However, as I have noted, a number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did. There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across Government. This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded."
This is not good enough.
The PM was right to apologise. He, or whoever succeeds him, must end the culture of entitlement at the top of British society which is clearly far too widespread and not just confined to politicians of any one party - this is just the latest and worst of a pattern in which people at the top of society think that the rules do not apply to them. This has been seen from senior politicians at the top of most if not all of the major parties but it is equally apparent from some senior members of the civil service, some journalists, and some elite sports personalities.
It is part of the problem, not part of the solution, when people involved in politics are quick to denounce their opponents at the least opportunity while remaining silent about conduct within their own side which would prompt then to an instant demand for resignation if they saw if from the other. We have seen too much of that from all parts of the political spectrum and I will not be adding to it.
The PM said yesterday that "We need to look in the mirror" and he was right: MPs of all political persuasions need to ask themselves what they can do to being the culture of entitlement to an end, on their own side as much on the other.
Most students of political history would probably agree that it is rarely the most effective way to reform your own side - or achieve anything else, for that matter - to gain a reputation for attacking your own colleagues. I have always tried to avoid "blue on blue" public spats with colleagues. Nor am I under the illusion that anything I would ever write here could possibly satisfy all of the critics of the PM or the present government, and anyone who imagines that I would ever post an all-out attack on my own side will still be waiting come the heat death of the universe.
But it would be a mistake to assume from the fact that I would rarely if ever be more critical in public of my own side than I have been in this post that I have not already had words to say in private and will not have much more to say in private over the coming days.
Because, on all sides, the culture of entitlement and the idea that rules are for other people must end.