Updated: Jun 10
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the wee donkey.”
Even if you didn’t watch the final series of BBC’s Line of Duty, the wee donkey meme crossed your path. It was hard to avoid it last Christmas.
After years of heading AC-12 - a police unit investigating ‘bent coppers’ - Superintendent Ted Hastings (actor Adrian Dunbar) was running out of expletive-free expressions. Frustration takes many forms.
I kept thinking of the donkey while I read the recent Sue Gray report into ‘Partygate’. Or, more accurately: ‘Findings of Second Permanent Secretary’s Investigation into Alleged Gatherings on Government Premises during Covid Restrictions’.
Despite the mind-numbing title, it is as compelling as a police thriller. The structure and writing are role model. We can but hope that all government and corporate bureaucrats could communicate with such clarity.
What follows is an overview of the content and some explanation of the roles and characters in the drama. Politics is outside my bailiwick. It’s the process and the publication that are my focus.
“We’ve been round the houses and down the bloody drains.” Superintendent Ted Hastings
The original scope for the investigation was published on 9th December 2021, which seemed to be into three gatherings. By the time Gray published her update on 31st January this year, it had expanded to 16.
However, don’t equate ‘scope’ with ‘quantity’. Gray’s purpose was much more specific:
Had the alleged events taken place?
Where were they held?
What was their nature and purpose?
How did they come to be organized?
Ask the right questions and you’ll uncover relevant answers.
SIDEBAR 1: A couple of things to know about the locations in the report.
No.10 Downing Street is the executive office and residence of the Prime Minister. It is much bigger than the well-known front door. Behind it three buildings that have been ‘knocked through’. There are 100 rooms for offices, and a private apartment.
No.70 Whitehall is literally around the corner from Downing Street, although also connected to No.10 by an internal door. It is the home of the Cabinet Office, headed by the Cabinet Secretary. The scope of the role has ebbed and flowed over time; all you need to know is that it’s very, very senior.
Combined, the two locations are the HQ of the British Government.
SIDEBAR 2: The three types of people who feature in the report:
A) Politicians. Whatever their job – Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Secretary of State – they are all MPs. Members of Parliament who have been elected and can be fired by local voters whenever there’s an election.
B) Advisers. Appointed by senior politicians, they might be a personal coach, a sounding board, a truth-teller, an idea-generator, or may come with a particular set of skills or contacts. For example, the Press Office (aka Director of Communications) who is the bridge between the Government and the media. Advisers may be ‘Special’ or ‘Senior’; they’re all contract players, completely dependent on a politician’s patronage.
C) Civil Servants. ‘MPs are for Parliament, Civil Servants are for life’. While politicians talk, civil servants deliver, allegedly. In theory, the Civil Service is there to enact the Government’s policies. In reality, it’s not that linear. ‘Politics’ is played by politicians, ‘politics’ is played by everyone
Crucially, Sue Gray is a senior Civil Servant. She was asked to take up the drains on all three groups of people in No.10 and No.70. Including her bosses.
“I am calm. I am TOTALLY bloody calm.” Superintendent Ted Hastings
At face value, investigating a series of gatherings may seem rather over the top (as the Daily Mail newspaper screamed, ‘IS THAT IT?’). But in politics, most of the time the ‘thing’ isn’t what matters. It’s the context that is everything. The setting in which the ‘events’ took place.
As Gray points out at the very start of her report:
The outbreak and spread of SARS Covid-19 represented a global public health crisis… the UK Government put in place far reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.
At the end of March 2020, the nation was forced to stay at home. At the start of July, most national restrictions were removed. In November, most restrictions on movement and gatherings were reintroduced (with specific limitation for London, location of Downing Street – Whitehall).
In case this had been forgotten by 2022, Gray reminds the reader at the start of the report. Then date by date, she gives the specifics guidelines in force at that time.
Each section then follows the same structure: Summary – a snapshot of the event. Preparation: who communicates what to whom. Event: what happened – attendee numbers, senior involvement, activities, how and when it ended.
The full report is in the public domain, so read all 37 pages, with the full story from May 2020 to April 2021. A couple of extracts will give you a taste…
“For years, the security on the department has been watertight – then you come along and we’re leaking like a colander.” Superintendent Ted Hastings
20 May 2020. The intent was ‘boosting staff morale’. The invitation was sent by Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary (a Civil Servant), to 200 staff across No.10 and to other senior officials. Lee Cain, Director of Communications (a Senior Advisor) flags up that this ‘might be a comms risk’.
(Cain says he subsequently spoke to Reynolds and advised him that the event should be cancelled. Reynolds does not recall any such conversation.)
Draw your own conclusion about how language frames a potential problem, and how status between roles leads to a regretted outcome.
Also, from the invitee list only 30-40 people attended. It isn’t clear how many were working from home that day. But how many from 200+ attendees decided not to go because, at the start of this saga, they were more mindful of the restrictions.
Then, what was the impact of finding out that the Prime Minister had attended? And the meaning of Reynold’s post-event WhatsApp message: “We seem to have got away with it.”
Up to you to draw the conclusions. All Gray did was report the facts.
“I don’t care if it's one rotten apple or the whole barrel.” Superintendent Ted Hastings
18 June 2020. This is a ‘leaving do’ for Official #1 which morphs into two events in the same evening. It starts in the No.10 Cabinet Room (usually pictured with all the ministers sitting
around a very long table), then drifts to the Cabinet Secretary’s Office in No.70 Whitehall.
Twenty-five people attend the gathering, including the Principle Private Secretary (again), as did his Deputy. A Deputy Cabinet Secretary provided a karaoke machine. Who wouldn’t? I always took one into the office.
This is the first gathering about which Gray mentions ‘vomit’ and ‘an altercation’. The event broke up in stages, with a few members of staff leaving from around 21:00, and the last leaving at 03:13.
“God give me strength. I don’t know who I believe.” Superintendent Ted Hastings
In November 2020, the second national lockdown specifically permitted exceptions “where the gathering is reasonably necessary… for work purposes.”
Which begs the questions:
What is reasonable?
What is necessary?
What has a reasonable, necessary work purpose?
Consider this: Is a leaving do reasonable, necessary or does it even have ‘a work purpose’?
Of the sixteen events investigated by Sue Gray, eight were a leaving do. Some were for unnamed officials, one for a Director General for the Covid Task Force, and one for another Director of Communications who had been in the role for four months.
“We do our duty of the letter of the law. The LETTER!” Superintendent Ted Hastings
After a step-by-step unpacking of the alleged events, showing what happened and avoids labelling with anything more emotive, Gray does draw conclusions, pulling no punches.
"Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen."
"The way in which the gatherings developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time."
"The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.:
That’s why I consider Gray’s report as role model. She is part on the official leadership, who was asked to hold a mirror up to her peers, her seniors, and her masters. And then she told the truth.
All large organizations need a Gray. Or a Hastings.
While searching for Hastings’ bon mots, I found the ‘wee donkey’ speech. The quote at the top of this post is accurate, but unintentionally shortened. In full he says:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the wee donkey… can we just move this along before it drives us all round the bloody bend?”
Today’s ballot among Government MPs is testing their confidence in their leader. It seems that Hastings wasn’t the only one to express deep frustration.