Ask Siri to show you what an 'elite boys' club' looks like and an image of No. 10 Downing Street during a coronavirus lockdown will appear.
There are nine people in the room, if you include whoever has taken the picture. Eight glasses raised in a toast. No masks or social distancing. A table is covered with half-empty bottles and wine glasses. It looks like student pre-drinks. Abandoned on a chair, there is a ministerial red box. Boris Johnson, the prime minister himself, is smiling, beverage in hand.
It’s November 2020 and the country has been ordered to stay at home for the second time. People are cut off from their loved ones, some of whom are dying from COVID-19. But inside the toxic old boys’ club that is Britain’s government, the party never stopped.
Sue Gray’s report into what exactly was going on at the heart of government at the height of the pandemic has been released. It could just as easily be an account of a Bullingdon Club (of which Johnson himself was famously a member) get-together: karaoke, parties where someone was sick, two people having a brawl, 'excessive' alcohol consumption, red wine spilled, a lack of respect for and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff.
This is the bit that really sticks. Key workers – cleaners and security staff who were putting themselves at risk while working to keep politicians and civil servants safe during a public health disaster – were disrespected while cleaning up the vomit of drunk people. Not just any drunk people, but drunk people who earn significantly more than they do.
Those involved knew it was wrong. In one message after a 'bring your own booze' party in May 2020 to which 200 people were invited, Martin Reynolds, the prime minister's principal private secretary, said: "We seem to have got away with [it]."
Damning. Gray writes that the government’s senior leadership must "bear responsibility" for these lockdown breaches. But like the members of the Bullingdon, who notoriously write blank cheques to atone for the disruption and destruction their benders cause, they won’t.
A lockdown fine only carries weight if you can’t really afford to pay it. All over the country, ordinary people who broke the rules have been penalised for doing exactly what the country’s leaders will get away with: breaking rules that were as vague as they were isolating and tough to follow.
While politicians have been allowed to fill out bespoke questionnaires about their behaviour, ordinary people were simply fined on the spot. Not everyone was policed equally, of course: in England and Wales, young minority ethnic people were 1.6 times more likely than white people to receive a fixed penalty notice. This is how privilege works. Flip the coin; this is the other side of elitism. Want to understand class and wealth inequality in this country? Well, here you are. This is a neat little lesson in the inner workings of the old boys' network.
The old boys never take the fall; those beneath them always pay the price for their proximity to privilege and power. Gray’s report follows the completion of the Metropolitan Police's investigation into breaches of COVID regulations in Westminster, which led to a total of 126 fines being issued to 83 individuals. Many of those individuals were more junior staff members who, according to Gray, attended events because their bosses legitimised them.
Apparently Johnson has escaped further repercussions because he 'works from home'. Yet he is currently on a campaign against working from home, claiming that it is too distracting because he ends up making multiple cups of coffee and hacking at blocks of cheese in the fridge. If you were the prime minister, would you admit to procrastinating like this while you’re supposed to be running the country? Perhaps it doesn’t matter when you’re one of the old boys.
So what now? This is Britain. If past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, nothing will change. Why would those, like Johnson, who have existed in a world – from Eton to Oxbridge to Westminster – where their actions have no meaningful consequences modify their behaviour when it works so well for them? The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is no better. He recently made it onto the Sunday Times rich list because he and his wife have a combined wealth estimated at £730 million.
The 200 people party was the same day as my brother's funeral. We were allowed to invite 10 people.
REFINERY29 UK READER
In a quick poll of 500 Refinery29 readers, 96% said that they think the prime minister should resign. He won’t. Instead more junior politicians will be sent off to defend him on primetime news shows and, eventually, people will get tired of being angry and give up.
For a while, we will all think back to what we were doing in the lockdowns. I was alone in my flat, miles away from my mother and sister. Barely seeing friends. You, Refinery29 readers, were cut off too:
"In spring I was grieving my grandmother who died alone," says one reader.
"Cancelling my wedding," writes another. "Barely coping," says another.
"I feel sick," says another. "The 200 people party was the same day as my brother’s funeral. We were allowed to invite 10 people."
Britain’s leaders were quite literally partying while the country faced a social and economic catastrophe. In her report, Gray says she was not able to investigate reports of a party at Boris Johnson’s flat on the night that his aide Dominic Cummings left Downing Street for the last time. That evening, the prime minister’s wife, Carrie, and a number of special advisers are alleged to have stayed up late listening to ABBA, although Johnson has claimed it was a meeting and said the police had not found it was illegal.
A union which represents those workers in government buildings, United Voices of the World (UVW), has called a demonstration against what it calls a culture of disrespect to low-paid workers. What happens in Downing Street sets the tone for what happens everywhere else in the country. If the Prime Minister and his team disrespect the people who make sure their offices run smoothly and clean up after them, it sends a clear message about class, wealth and power to the rest of Britain: if you're not a member of the club, you don't matter. You don't deserve respect. You're disposable.
Refinery29 readers said the report makes them feel "sick", "frustrated", "helpless". Boris Johnson may be safe for now, helped in no small part by the fact that Sue Gray’s report has been so delayed. But living costs are rising. Ordinary people are, once again, paying for the government’s behaviour. Conveniently, Sunak has just U-turned and promised to levy a windfall tax on oil and gas energy providers to try and help but this won’t distract from the truth that has been exposed: politics is still an old boys' club and enough is enough. Old boys' clubs work because of omertà: a sworn oath of secrecy like those taken in the mob. Members of the club protect other members, formally and informally. They help each other out. They don’t tell. But they don't have to get away with it. The antidote? Speak up, speak out and hold those in power to account. In the end, they only keep their jobs if people vote for them.