Voices: Why wasn’t the whistle blown on the Downing Street party sooner?

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·7-min read
Voices: Why wasn’t the whistle blown on the Downing Street party sooner?
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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019

It’s easy, when confronted with such overwhelming evidence of entitlement and hubris as presented by the latest revelations over lockdown revelling in the backyard of 10 Downing Street, to assume that everyone that surrounds Boris Johnson is on the take.

It’s one rule for them and another for us, we crow. As often, the truth is less simple or as easily condemned. For although 100 people were invited to that particular illegal rave in the summer gardens of the PM’s residence, reports suggest only 30 turned up. What happened to the rest?

Among the remaining 70 invitees were, no doubt, many who were appalled by what they saw in that email, the breezy references to enjoying the sunshine and rewards for hard work. There would be relatives of nurses working exhausting and emotionally difficult shifts on Covid wards. There would be those who had parents isolated in care homes, their minds unthreading like a spool during the interminable weeks they were unable to connect with their families.

There would be men (I think we can be fairly sure the recipients were mostly men) whose partners were sending endless desperate messages from home as they struggled to hold their own careers down with no nursery or school open or a grandparent to help. There would be others who had family members furloughed and by now deeply anxious about their future earning potential. And inevitably, somewhere in that list, there would be the bereaved.

So why didn’t any one of them blow the whistle and leak that email at the time? You might be tempted to argue that the failure betrays a moral insufficiency at the heart of the civil service, because even those who weren’t moved to partake in croquet on the lawn with Boris – either out of a sensible regard for their own physical safety, or because of the gargantuan exercise in cognitive dissonance it would require – didn’t do the right thing and stop it right then.

Even more so when the public had clearly demonstrated its dissatisfaction with Dominic Cummings when he thought he could reinterpret the rules around self-isolation to suit his own family circumstances. But I don’t think so. There’s something more insidious going on.

The culture of fear, of blame and of burying bodies to climb a greasy pole is endemic inside politics and throughout the civil service, and even the wider public sector. This type of hushing up, going quietly or ignoring the obviously bad goes on up and down Whitehall and way beyond, in town halls in every conurbation, in hospitals, in council offices, in schools and other institutions. People don’t simply ignore what they shouldn’t because they are selfish, but because the stakes are too high. Whistleblowing may be the right thing to do, but only the very financially fortunate or the largely emotionally unattached can afford to do it, for the result is career suicide.

If you, a senior civil servant with a mortgage to pay and three children to support, throw open a window to cast in a shaft of cleansing sunlight, your life will change beyond measure. You’ll lose your job and income, and your planned career path. Any future employer – even in the charity sector, which has its own very strong reputation for this kind of blame and silence culture – might praise your bravery in public, but would be deeply hesitant to take you on as you’ve revealed yourself to be a bit of renegade, willing to wash dirty underpants in sight of the neighbours.

Some of this reticence and anxiety can be explained as a side effect of the work that is done in government. The public sector is somewhere where bad mistakes do happen, and that’s not a criticism. Those designing social policies need to be able to iterate and test ideas. If any failed scheme which results in a bit of misspent public funding (albeit on the route to a better, effective policy) leads to some kind of naming and shaming, improvements would stop too. So some of this nausea at speaking out is inbuilt in the work.

But that alone doesn’t explain Boris’s back garden booze-up, or the extent of the hushing up that is clearly endemic in Whitehall.

At the time, there may have been a moral majority in numbers, but the culture of fear is so pervasive that any urge to act upon obligation is blunted, questioned and eventually reasoned out of the mind. I imagine a hushed conversation between husband and wife at home that day. “Maybe I should say something? Can I let this go on? But would it make any difference? It would be better to focus on the pandemic response, surely; a change of prime minister now, or any political instability, would be so dangerous at such a time. No, I’d better not. I’d better keep quiet.”

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We don’t know (yet) whether any internal complaint was made at the time. Perhaps it was. But we do know that 70 people at the heart of government and the civil service feel they are working in an environment which means they simply cannot act in accordance with the Nolan Principles, which they are obligated to follow as a condition of employment.

These seven principles of good practice in the execution of public service include four that are pertinent to the question of whether the 70 party refuseniks had a contractual obligation to tell us all what was going on: selflessness, accountability, openness and honesty.

Despite endless reviews and white papers over how and when whistleblowers in the public sector should be protected, there is still no legal requirement for any public sector body to have a proper whistleblowing procedure in place. Where they exist, they’re worthless. Whistleblowing is always career ending, and the blame culture casts a long enough shadow to hush up even the most morally squeamish for deep fear of retribution. It turns our public servants into timid yes men and renders the pillars of the Nolan Principles mere dust.

We can be fairly sure, because they waited nearly two years, that whoever is responsible for leaking the giveaway email now has another agenda: creating an environment in which imposing another set of social restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus is an absolute impossibility. Well, they’ve done it. And they’ve also exposed just how many duplicities Boris Johnson finds it comfortable to live with.

The effect of what we now know is dangerous: some sensible people on Twitter, who have never before shown any signs of crackpot conspiracy theorism, mooted yesterday that perhaps Johnson had never had Covid in March 2020 at all. Or if he had, he hadn’t really needed to be hospitalised and the whole thing was a huge con trick designed to scare the public into obeying lockdown rules.

The inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 by the UK government, to be chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, is due to start its work in a matter of weeks now. It feels both far too late and, given that we’re riding another great wave of infections, perhaps too soon. But when the digging around in the 2020 archives begins, it must have both the actions and the behaviour of decision makers in mind. The protection of whistleblowers, or more pertinently the lack of it, should be considered as part of this review.

There’s so much we should know already but don’t, because those who could have told us (and were likely morally minded to do so) felt they had too much to lose. As a nation we’ve already lost so much to Covid-19. Our respect on the world stage as a democracy, our trust in our institutions and our belief in the values of public service are now all at stake too.

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