Parties, photos, trolleys, variants
15 May was no 'party'... but the inquiry should look at 20 May... MPs should learn and enforce PUBLICATION of covid 'plans'
[Added 17 Jan, this blog has an update at the bottom…]
Ignore unless interested in UK politics/covid.
The Guardian photo at roughly 6-7 on Friday 15 May was not of a ‘party’ or ‘rule breaking’.
The inquiry should investigate the ‘Socially Distanced Drinks’ email sent on Wednesday 20 May 2020.
Obviously the PM has told multiple lies about parties in December 2020 and forced or encouraged others to tell the media untrue things.
While it’s bad that he is lying about this and generally lying all the time, much worse than these lies has been his determination to a) keep rubbish people in critical positions, b) failing to prioritise preparations for variants throughout 2021 and encouraging everybody to think, as he did in September 2020, ‘covid’s over’.
If the government had treated the variant threat as it should — and as I and others publicly urged all year — then we would, for example, have prioritised an emergency program to manufacture and distribute antivirals shown to work, with last-mile logistics to get them to people within 48 hours of symptoms. These could have crushed hospitalisation rates and allowed everyone to escape the awful choice of ‘NPIs that destroy jobs and huge economic value’ or ‘let the NHS be overwhelmed’.
If the PM had taken advice from me and others in summer 2020 to replace Hancock and prioritise a serious plan to rebuild the NHS, including the incentives that program bad management, then the NHS would have been in a much stronger position to deal with a less threatening variant problem in winter 2021.
Throughout, the media has spent 1000 times more time criticising speedy action than demanding speedier action. The Guardian has worked with lawyers explicitly using the courts to disincentivise fast action — take a bow Jolyon-the-kimono-fox-killer, famously ‘the biggest cun* at the bar’ who brought a JR complaining about the speed of the vaccine taskforce.
Ideas for how the trolley can ‘get a grip’ are all false. The only way for ‘grip’ to exist in No10 would be for someone to exercise it on his behalf. He decided in Q3 2020 that this was more dangerous than chaos. It’s too late for him to change his mind. Chaos will continue until he is removed. Tory MPs should ensure this happens before August so a new PM is in place for September and can use power for 18 months.
The 2024 election means the Tories asking for 19 years and a fifth term. This request has never been granted in British democratic politics. ‘Time for change’ will be extremely powerful. The fact that Starmer is a dud means the Tories do have a chance but only if there is a new PM with a great team that can figure out the right priorities and execute with ruthless skill, speed and focus. If the trolley is left smashing around for another 2 years, the Tories could not only lose but be so discredited they are out for a decade. Much punditry and many MP dinner parties will be wasted over the next few months in displacement activity trying to ignore these fundamentals.
Parliament should force the publication of plans for future variants and other pandemics, as I argued in 2020. The only reasonable assumption is that unless this happens, a) the trolley will again declare ‘covid’s over’, b) Whitehall will therefore not prioritise preparations for variants and other pandemics and c) we will again only realise this when the crisis lands, just as we learned for sure that 2020 had been wasted only when omicron landed.
Parties and photos
In the photo of the No10 garden, 15 May 2020, on the front of the Guardian, I am sitting opposite the PM. The other male is Martin Reynolds, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary and the most senior official in No10. (See below for comment on lack of media coverage of this vital role.)
It is alleged by many that this shows ‘a party’, ‘rule breaking’ and so on. This is wrong.
I had several meetings at that table that day. Before this photo the PM, me and others had a meeting at that table. The meeting ended roughly 6-630. The PM and I continued talking as it broke up. Someone brought a bottle of wine out to the table. It may have been Martin but I think it was the PM himself who went inside as I was packing stuff up and brought out wine. We carried on chatting about covid, about domestic priorities, and about how to sort out the Cabinet Office which had totally collapsed. Shortly after Carrie joined us. (Nobody has been as critical of her as I have for her influence on the PM and No10 but it is an unarguable legal fact that she was allowed by ‘the rules’ to be in the garden in her own home.)
According to my phone, I left No10 shortly after this photo was taken at about 715.
The scene on the terrace was in no sense a ‘party’ or ‘organised drinks’. Many meetings had been taking place in the garden all day. While the PM and I had been at that table, various other groups had formed and dispersed in the garden/terrace. Those on the terrace nearest me in the photo had been having a meeting.
Because No10’s political and communication operation has imploded, it has failed to explain something very obvious to anybody working there at the time: No10 staff were ENCOURAGED to have meetings in the garden April-August for the obvious reason that we were in a pandemic with an airborne disease and being outside was safer! All day every day in this period there were many work meetings in the No10 garden. If you watched time-lapse photos of the garden, you would see a pattern for months of multiple meetings forming and breaking up in the garden and on the terrace from morning until night.
You’d also see me coming in and out of the Cabinet doors, ~20 feet from me in the photo, all day for meetings at the same table. I was there so often over those months some people referred to the terrace as ‘your office’. I’d gone back to work immediately after covid (13 April) and was ill/exhausted for months. Sometimes I would have a meeting at that table, walk down the stairs, sleep on the grass for half an hour, and go back to the table for more meetings. I also had the doors to the Cabinet room open all day and depending on the weather sometimes had meetings there with the doors open. The following Friday 22 May, the PM and I had meetings lasting hours, from lunch until 6ish, at the same table.
No10 sent out Raab and others to argue that this photo was taken ‘outside normal working hours’. This is obviously false. (It isn’t Raab’s fault, he was given duff lines from No10.) It was normal in No10 on Fridays for people to carry on working until very late, often after midnight. Before, during and after covid some of those working late on Fridays would have a drink at their desks or in the garden. Until I was ill from covid it was normal for me to be there late on Fridays. The now-famous white board — showing Plan A (herd immunity by September) breaking the NHS and the first sketch of Plan B showing management of multiple waves — was sketched in the PM’s office ~7-8pm on Friday 13 March when staff were as usual there until late. In no sense can 6-7pm on a Friday be described as ‘outside normal working hours’ in No10.
Another reason why I encouraged staff to work in the garden as much as possible April-May is that I had lost the argument on testing No10 staff in Feb-March. I argued strongly that, like other governments, we should have temperature controls and testing in order to limit the chances of the wave spreading through No10 and damaging decision-making. The Cabinet Office and other senior officials opposed this and the PM, against my advice, sided with them — a classic case of worrying about the media reaction (‘politicians getting tests while NHS staff go without’) more than the real issue (collapse of decision-making leading to cascading disasters).
In the summer, after this approach had nearly killed the PM and certainly contributed to the collapse of core government functions, I persuaded the Cabinet Office and the PM to reverse ferret and introduce a rigorous testing regime for No10 staff which meant there was close to no disruption inside No10 in Wave 2. In the meantime it was common sense for as much as possible to happen in the garden.
There is no reasonable argument that No10 staff having meetings in the garden throughout that summer was either illegal or unethical. It would have been extremely stupid to ban staff from the garden and make them all work inside. Nobody ever suggested that covid rules meant that No10 staff were forbidden from having a drink in the evening at their desk or while discussing work with colleagues they were sitting next to and/or working with all day.
(A real ‘culture problem’ in No10 is not people having a drink in the evening, it’s that so few people in No10/70 Whitehall work really hard and instead bitch about ‘work life balance’, a true sign of decadence and a leading indicator of why crisis management might collapse — a problem that I tried hard to reverse but which has got worse with the new regime reverting to the Cameron chillax approach to government. There are of course many extremely dedicated staff including the wonderful custodians who constantly make extreme efforts. They are let down badly by the PM.)
But there was a social event May 2020 that should not have happened…
On Wednesday 20 May, the week after this photo, a senior No10 official invited people to ‘socially distanced drinks’ in the garden.
I and at least one other spad (in writing so Sue Gray can dig up the original email and the warning) said that this seemed to be against the rules and should not happen.
We were ignored. I was ill and went home to bed early that afternoon but am told this event definitely happened.
In my opinion the official who organised this should anyway have been removed that summer because of his failures over covid. I said this repeatedly to the PM. The PM rejected my argument, as he did about Hancock and many others who should have been replaced. The PM’s failure to remove people who could not do their jobs properly made his own terrible decision-making even worse and meant more people died unnecessarily. This problem has got worse throughout 2020. (The ‘chief of staff’ should also have been removed, not just because he cannot do the job but for going to watch James Bond instead of doing his job in the petrol crisis.)
In my opinion it would not be fair for most officials who went to the garden for drinks on 20 May to be punished because, given the nature of the invitation, a junior official would be justified in thinking ‘this must somehow be within the rules or X would not have invited me’.
Other than the 20 May, I’m not aware of events in No10 that ‘broke the rules’ while I was there.
I left on Friday 13 November 2020. (When I left it was actually agreed that I had not left but was shifting to part time with a different role, but the PM and his girlfriend immediately briefed the media in a way that blew up what we’d agreed. This sadly hit various projects including mass testing.) I was told at the time that there was a party in the PM’s flat the night I left and staff in the press office said they could hear the music playing loudly in the press office below (the press office is directly below the flat).
If Sue Gray asks people who were there and they trust that the PM will never know they gave evidence to this effect, then probably some of them will tell her this. There was a small report at the time but obviously a) much of the lobby were ecstatic I had left and b) much of the lobby were getting many stories directly from the flat, outside proper channels (one of many sources of contention between the PM and me), therefore the story was buried.
Officials I spoke to in 2021 said to me and others that there were various parties after I left and the PM was aware of them. I have also been told there are other photos of other parties against the rules in 2021, some picturing the PM.
(There have been reports of a party on 27/11. There was no party then.)
Political hacks don’t understand how real power works in Whitehall
Very few political hacks — who appear on TV ‘explaining’ the news — actually understand how power really works in this country. Ditto for think tankers and most MPs. This is shown by a) how little they explain the true power structures across No10, the Cabinet Office, HMT, intelligence agencies and so on, b) how they massively exaggerate the importance of Cabinet, which is treated as a largely Potemkin exercise by those with real power around Downing Street (encouraged by the PM). The power of ministers is massively exaggerated, the power of the Cabinet Secretary is massively under-reported. The latter has something like 100X, perhaps 1000X, more true power than the average minister. Who gets the media coverage?
Another example is the lack of coverage of the PPS role. The media portrays No10, as a building and office, as controlled by political people. This is largely false but most MPs believe it. The most senior ‘No10 official’ in the sense of having formal powers over No10 is the PPS (unless there happens to be a more senior civil servant appointed, as with Heywood or Case when they were ‘Permanent Secretary of No10’).
The PPS exercises far more influence and actual power over many issues than Cabinet ministers. He can nudge policy, he can nudge vital appointments (real power). He can and does walk into the PM’s office and exclude all political people ‘on security grounds’.
If you want to change how officials in the press office treat, say, how the PM speech goes on the website, and officials are resisting, you will need to speak to the PPS and to PET. No spad can make them change policy.
If you think the PM’s treatment of STRAP material (highly sensitive) risks getting people killed, its pointless speaking to a spad. You have to speak to the PPS because it is the PPS who speaks to the deep state officials who control things like the physical security of the box, protocols for collection, what goes in when and so on. Apparently quite junior officials have more power over such things than the grandly and wrongly titled ‘chief of staff’.
In all the coverage of the trolley’s uselessness, there is huge discussion of No10 spads.
There is almost no discussion of Private Office.
Most MPs also do not realise how powerful the private secretaries are and how many issues reported as about spads are actually about officials.
For example, the PM’s Private Secretary on Brexit, a brilliant official, had FAR more influence on the negotiations than any minister including Gove and the Foreign Secretary. If I wanted to speak to ‘C’, this is the person I spoke to — not anybody political.
The PM’s Private Secretary for Treasury matters has FAR more influence on economic policy (and many other things) than any No10 policy spad and any minister other than the Chancellor.
The PM’s Private Secretary on security issues in 2020 was a brilliant young woman wired into the deep state across Whitehall. On many things she was (thankfully) far more influential than any minister.
The Private Office has many great officials who work extremely hard and a few duds.
For good and ill, you see no coverage of it. Almost all political coverage focuses on a very small portion of the landscape. Much of the most important things about real power happens away from the lights.
This is partly why I refused the title ‘chief of staff’, a misguided Westminster import of a West Wing concept. It’s a classic sign of bad management to give yourself a fake job title. Unlike James Baker, you are literally NOT ‘chief of staff’. I gave myself the title ‘Assistant to the PM’ instead but the media used the West Wing title they prefer.
No10 would work much better if there were an actual ‘chief of staff’ but of course Whitehall by design breaks a basic principle of high performance management — having responsibility and authority in the same place (cf. General Groves on the crucial lessons of the Manhattan Project’s success). In the chaos that this inevitably causes, officials you’ve never heard of wield real power while the people you vote for have Potemkin photo ops in Downing Street…
MPs should force publication of variant plans or risk another fiasco
I argued through 2020 that MPs and the media should pressure No10 to publish their plans to deal with the threat of variants — e.g vaccine updates for variants, developing NEW vaccines that don’t just target the spike, urgent manufacturing and distribution for antivirals that can crush hospitalisation rates, rebuilding the NHS workforce and so on.
This did not happen.
Many MPs and hacks, like the trolley, wanted to ‘get back to normal politics’ and tell themselves ‘covid’s over’.
As we saw in December, No10 chaos was layered on top of a lack of proper planning. Many decisions were taken by the trolley crashing in response to texts from the flat, the Telegraph, and his collapsing political situation. In many ways the situation is much worse than in autumn 2020 as the trolley has blown up guard rails we put in place to control its smashing.
As omicron subsides, the trolley will do the same as in April 2020, autumn 2020, spring 2021 — he will bumble around No10 shouting ‘covid’s over I never want to hear about covid again dead cat fucking covid where’s my maps of trains and bus lanes build the tunnel to Ireland back better build Augustus the hungry sheep look up and must be fed there’s only one Fuhrer argh fuck me Carrie’s texting foreign trip smash crash…’
Unless some force intervenes, No10 will not learn the lesson even now. It cannot because THE TROLLEY IS IN CHARGE and the trolley fears being controlled more than it fears chaos.
So again I urge MPs: force No10 to publish their plans for future variants, vaccine plans including new ideas (not just spike targeting), antiviral plans, NHS workforce plans and so on, then hold Committee hearings examining responsible officials in detail.
To those Tory MPs who want to ‘move on’, a last bit of advice…
The most dangerous moment of the 2019 election felt to me at the time when Labour organised press conferences in which NHS staff, dressed in work clothes, were players, handing out documents. It was a very good move by Corbyn’s team, one they should have repeated daily but did not.
If the trolley is left in place, there is a good chance that the 2024 campaign will be dominated by the story of the NHS workforce mobilising to remove the trolley. Yes Starmer is a dud but a) there are powerful fundamentals operating against another Tory majority and b) executing this idea does not require brilliance. Even the Corbyn campaign team, which could not even make itself look at its own polling sensibly, could execute it.
The only way to avert this existential threat to many seats, including much of the ‘Red Wall’, is to replace the trolley with a team that can actually deliver meaningful workforce changes, including incentive changes in the NHS. It is nearly inconceivable that the trolley and Saj will conceive and execute the action needed. It requires exactly the sort of skills — deep thinking about incentives, figuring out hard policy, actual control of Whitehall, operational excellence, focused communication and so on — that No10 cannot now deploy. (Yes there are some good people left in No10 but they cannot make up for disastrous senior management. E.g The trolley blames Munira for policy problems but she has been marginalised by his own ‘chief of staff’ etc, the ‘policy problems’ are his fault not her fault.)
Further, of course, this action should be considered part of a) future pandemic planning and b) the general upgrade of No10’s crisis management capabilities.
I wrote before 2020 about how crisis management would fail in a crisis like a pandemic, e.g HERE and HERE. I also wrote about how things like EU procurement rules would kill people in a disaster HERE.
Crisis management failed in the ways predicted. SW1 laughed even in January 2020 when I started hiring people to upgrade capabilities, as covid was spreading…
Publication of plans can happen without compromising the very small amount of genuine ‘national security’ / intellegience agency activity that should be kept secret. This is not a reasonable excuse for general secrecy.
LAB LEAK EVIDENCE
For a decade one of the best blogs I’ve followed is Scott Aaronson, the quantum computer researcher.
He is an Obama-supporting academic who very strongly opposed Trump. He’s the sort of liberal who also loves Scott Alexander’s blog. He’s at the far tail not just for IQ but also for intellectual honesty.
It does not conclude ‘it was definitely a lab leak’. Bold added below.
I would say that Viral proves the following propositions beyond reasonable doubt:
Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at WIV and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work, including collecting virus-laden fecal samples from thousands of bats in remote caves, transporting them to the dense population center of Wuhan, and modifying them to be more dangerous, e.g., through serial passage through human cells and the insertion of furin cleavage sites. Years before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were experts remarking on how risky this research was and trying to stop it. Had they known just how lax the biosecurity was in Wuhan — dangerous pathogens experimented on in BSL-2 labs, etc. etc. — they would have been louder.
Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to an actionable early warning about how bad COVID-19 was going to be, nor did it lead to useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.
There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.
Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists. They’ve acted more and more like defendants exercising their right to remain silent than like participants in a joint search for the truth. That might be understandable if they’d already answered ad nauseam and wearied of repeating themselves, but with many crucial questions, they haven’t answered even once. They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. When, in January 2020, Shi disclosed to the world that WIV had collected a virus called RaTG13, which was 96% identical to SARS-CoV2, she didn’t mention that it was collected from a mine in Mojiang, which the WIV had sampled from over and over because six workers had gotten a SARS-like pneumonia there in 2012 and three had died from it. She didn’t let on that her group had been studying RaTG13 for years — giving, instead, the false impression that they’d just noticed it recently, when searching WIV’s records for cousins of SARS-CoV2. And she didn’t see fit to mention that WIV had collected eight other coronaviruses resembling SARS-CoV2 from the same mine (!). Shi’s original papers on SARS-CoV2 also passed in silence over the virus’s furin cleavage site—even though SARS-CoV2 was the first sarbecoronavirus with that feature, and Shi herself had recently demonstrated adding furin cleavage sites to other viruses to make them more transmissible, and the cleavage site would’ve leapt out immediately to any coronavirus researcher as the most interesting feature of SARS-CoV2 and as key to its transmissibility. Some of these points had to be uncovered by Internet sleuths, poring over doctoral theses and the like, after which Shi would glancingly acknowledge the points in talks without ever explaining her earlier silences. Shi and Daszak refused to cooperate with Chan and Ridley’s book, and have stopped answering questions more generally. When people politely ask Daszak about these matters on Twitter, he blocks them.
The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine. So Shi at least has the excuse that, even if she’d wanted to come clean with everything relevant she knows about WIV’s bat coronavirus work, she might not be able to do so without endangering herself or loved ones. Daszak has no such excuse.
Many UK scientists jumped far too fast on the ‘don’t discuss lab leaks / it’s racist to discuss lab leaks’ bus in spring 2020. The UK Government was too quick to echo this consensus publicly (not the trolley’s fault, he was badly advised and to be fair to him he did try to dig into this). There are serious questions to answer about internal HMG work on this subject including classified briefings given to the PM in spring-summer 2020. I can’t discuss these but I can say that I hope the Cabinet Secretary and other key figures at the top of SIS and GCHQ have reviewed performance.
As many have pointed out, despite the enormity of the covid disaster, we are still allowing extremely dangerous research to continue in labs without adequate safety regimes! And of course there is practically no mainstream media coverage, just like in 2019 when I blogged on it!
And we are failing to build many things we should be building, here and across the world, to help detect future natural or manmade pandemic threats and ensure they are suppressed one way or another. Follow @kesvelt and @geochurch for details.
In all the debates over the UK’s often-hopeless resonse, very few have asked the obvious question: if we had a pandemic as dangerous as smallpox or ebola, we couldn’t ‘get away with’ this abysmal performance and public debate, we’d either have to raise our game 10X during the crisis [very hard] or watch 20-30 million fellow citizens die, perhaps horribly, so why aren’t we getting to grips NOW with critical issues like the inability of No10 to direct the police in a crisis?
Throughout my adult life Westminster has avoided serious thinking and action about these issues. Covid has been bad enough to be a genuine disaster but not bad enough to make Westminster change its rotten ways.
The most important lesson of covid is not specific to covid or even pandemics: it is that we now have an example in the internet age of how even something as big as covid will not make bureaucracies reform themselves, and across the West political parties are so rotten — intellectually, operationally, ethically — that they will not force them to, even when short-term political interests should incentivise this. (E.g It’s in Starmer’s electoral interests to force Whitehall issues into the public but he’s such a creature of the system he cannot do it. Cf. him backing the trolley on the Met.)
And of course the nature of the media means this fundamental issue is almost totally obscured.
This experience provides some insight into how Whitehall could send almost identical memos about Belgium in 1866, 1870, 1914 and 1930s. The experience of the Somme did not make the bureaucracies adapt. Like cockroaches, the laws of bureaucracy can survive almost anything, even world wars. Without regime change, if you live for another 30-50 years you will likely see something much worse than covid.
We have 21st Century technologies, 20th Century bureaucracies, 19th Century crisis management, pre-Bayes training for senior people in decision-making under uncertainty, and Stone Age biological instincts to kill out-groups under pressure. This means we will continue to experience crises moving 1000X faster than summer 1914 with 1,000,000X more destructive power than 1914 with similar crisis management to 1914 — a bunch of middle-aged guys with similar backgrounds and poor training, thinking similarly, sitting around a table with pencils on a table, and no modern tools to help them.
This is why we did Brexit. This is why in No10 I spent my time on science and technology and procurement and civil service reform. We created the Analytical Private Office, #10ds, the NHS covid dashboards and more. But this and other work we started has not been reinforced by the PM. Great people — officials and spads — are incredibly depressed and frustrated. The next regime should revive this work…
(You will see many claims by the media that I altered what I wrote in one of my 2019 blogs. This is false. Not a single letter of what I wrote was edited. What I did was copy/paste over further information from the original Bulletin of Atomic Science piece on biolab safety that was relevant to covid. I didn’t put a note on to this effect because the PM had asked me not to blog after Jan 2020 and I couldn’t face another stupid discussion with him, which is a good reminder to me of what I say so often to others: avoiding a tough discussion now will cause more problems later, grasp the nettle…)
I’ve been very critical of how the political media has covered covid. Its ignorance about how power really works, its operation via constant-lemming-emotional-waves, its low ethical standards, its determination to ignore MANAGEMENT and issues like procurement even in a pandemic — all this and more have encouraged our MPs to be foolish and lowered the standards of public debate.
So it’s only fair to point out rare examples of an old legacy media organisation doing something right. @jburnmurdoch has been generally excellent. If you read the FT on politics, you will read nonsense — their hacks make stuff up as much or more than the tabloids they sneer at. But you should follow him on data and covid.
This post is about covid. Covid posts are free. Please share.
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UPDATE, 17 JAN
I started writing a long explanation of the 20 May.
It was a pivotal day for reasons other than the drinks party.
It was the day on which days of intense conflict over the the future of the government — including the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Secretary and the PPS’s own job, the real core of hidden power in the British state — came to boiling point. In many ways, the decisions and emotions of that day led directly to my departure.
Discussions about the PPS’s party invite at lunchtime therefore occurred in an extremely combustible environment. People were screaming in rage and frustration at the chaos the PM had caused by botched sackings and telling everybody different things. People were threatening to resign and hold press conferences. Whitehall was looking to the PM’s office for leadership on covid but it was a particularly intense shambles that day.
The whole thing is so profoundly depressing I can’t bring myself to write it all down now. I’ll just make some very simple points about the immediate issue in front of Sue Gray…
On 20 May, after the PPS sent the invitation to the drinks party, a very senior official replied by email saying the invite broke the rules. This email will be seen by Sue Gray (unless there is a foolish coverup which would also probably be a criminal offence).
The PPS went to the official’s office where they discussed it. The PPS declined to withdraw the invite.
I told the PPS the invite broke the rules.
He said: so long as it’s socially distanced I think it’s OK, I’ll check with the PM if he’s happy for it to go ahead. (Obviously even if it was ‘socially distanced’ this would in no way make it ‘within the rules’.)
I am sure he did check with the PM. (I think it very likely another senior official spoke to the PM about it but I am not sure.)
Amid discussion over the future of the Cabinet Secretary and PPS himself, which had been going on for days, I said to the PM something like: Martin’s invited the building to a drinks party, this is what I’m talking about, you’ve got to grip this madhouse.
The PM waved it aside. I had told him repeatedly the PPS should be replaced, as had other competent officials who knew the whole structure needed a huge upgrade in personnel and management. ‘He’s MY guy, I don’t want you replacing him with YOUR person.’ (Yes, this says a lot.)
I went home to bed at 3ish, still very ill from covid.
The idea that the PPS would be challenged by two of the most senior people in the building, say he’d check with the PM then not — is not credible.
Will the PPS claim that having invited people to a drinks party, he told the PM it was a ‘work meeting’?! (Claiming this, given the actual words of his invite, would, of course, necessarily imply that MR knew a drinks party was against the rules.)
Is the PM going to claim that a) his PPS told him ‘PM this is a work meeting’ and b) after he walked around the garden talking to people standing around drinking, ‘Sue, honestly, I swear to you I thought it was a work meeting’?!
No10 is throwing out as much confusing chaff as possible, such as nonsense about a ‘drinking culture’ intended to shift blame. (There was no ‘drinking culture’ while I was there but the string of parties after I left shows the PM trying to be ‘my own chief of staff’ was disastrous, as he was told it would be.)
MPs should focus on the basics.
The PM’s PPS invited people to a drinks party.
The PPS was told to cancel the invite by at least two people.
He checked with the PM whether the party should go ahead.
The PM agreed it should.
They both went to the party.
It was actually a drinks party.
The PM told MPs repeatedly that he had no idea about any parties.
The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties.
Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.
I notice that when I explained about the PM trying to go see the Queen when he might have been infectious and I stopped him, No10 issued a total denial and I was told that ‘Martin is supporting the PM’s denial’. This episode was also witnessed by others who will tell the official inquiry that what I have said is true and the official denials are false.
There are many other photos of parties after I left yet to appear.
I’ll say more when SG’s report is published.