Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ scandal has thrown into disrepute the culture at Number 10 Downing Street. Sue Gray’s official enquiry into the lockdown parties is ongoing and an official ruling is yet to be made, but if we believe that ‘history is a guide to the future’ then one can see that this behaviour has precedent. Johnson has been embroiled in a number of similar incidents. The most recent of these is the accusations that the PM has been “blackmailing” rebellious backbenchers who organised against him in ‘Operation Pork Pie’. But it’s not just his past behaviour that raises eyebrows, some of his peers' equally chequered pasts give credence to the adage that there is certainly ‘no smoke without fire’.
Johnson is currently facing a crisis not just from members of the public and from Labour, but perhaps most significantly from members of his very own party in the so-called ‘Operation Pork Pie’. The PM in response tried to use the ‘carrot’ approach and initiated his own ‘Operation Red Meat’, whereby he attempted to appease the backbenchers by serving populist policies to satiate their appetite. Unfortunately for him though it appears that his efforts were in vain and their ‘putsch’ is continuing.
Johnson now appears to be reaching for the ‘stick’ and has been accused of blackmailing backbenchers. The Guardian reports that at least five MPs have allegedly been threatened with cuts to constituency funding or leaks of disparaging stories. We know two of backbenchers include Andrew Brigen and Christian Wakeford, the latter of whom accused the prime minister of “disgraceful” behaviour before defecting to Labour. Brigen (North West Leicestershire MP) is a vocal critic of the prime minister and has not been shy of this, which is why he believes that a story detailing a donation from a timber firm was leaked to The Times.
Wakeford claims whips threatened to withdraw funding for a school in his constituency of Bury South. William Wragg, who chairs the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) declared that these incidents “... would seem to constitute blackmail” and encouraged the reporting of it. The PM for his part has denied these accusations and insists that “I've seen no evidence [of blackmail]”. Angela Rayner (Labour Deputy) however has insisted that the claims must be “investigated thoroughly”, and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has even gone as far as to accuse him of acting similarly to a “mafia boss”.
The PM's morally ambiguous behavior is not new however, and there is evidence of this within the past. In 1990, he was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph and accused of assisting in the conspiracy to assault Stuart Collier. Collier – a journalist who back then had been working for now defunct News Of The World – had been investigating and writing about the alleged illegal activities of the businessman Darius Guppy. Guppy and Johnson were actually old friends and the former had reached out to the now prime minister, asking for the reporter’s address so he can send people round to give him black eyes and a cracked rib. Again, Johnson denied wrongdoing and dismissed the call as a joke in his book about becoming an MP –‘Friends, Voters, Countrymen’ (2001). Collier however understandably did not take the leaked call lightly. The Guardian tracked him down and the reporter demands the apology which he claims he never got.
Guppy lives in South Africa, where he had emigrated to after being freed from jail for insurance fraud. Assuming that the prime minister’s comments were in fact simply made in jest to a friend of his, Guppy’s other transgressions do raise eyebrows about the company that is kept by our country’s leader. Indeed, Guppy is not the only bad company the prime minister keeps as we shall see in the next section.
Johnson’s past transgressions can be argued to have contributed toward a hostile climate in Number 10. This climate not only empowers party whips to allegedly blackmail those who do not tow the party line, but could empower other senior members like Priti Patel to possibly bully multiple members of her own party. This is not an isolated incident, she has demonstrated a pattern of bullying through her career. Patel bullied an official to collapse, "swore and shout[ed]" at staff and had one of her victims paid off.
This culminated in the resignation of Philip Rutnam (Former Home Office Secretary) in March of 2020, which led to a report that found Patel had “not consistently met the high standards of the ministerial code”. Johnson however let her off with nothing more than a proverbial slap on the wrist which eventually led to Sir Alex Allan to resign, after the findings of his report had seemingly been brushed aside by Johnson. Patel issued an ‘apology’, where she did not admit to bullying but had apologised for any distress caused. Johnson’s decision to let his colleague off relatively unscathed speaks volumes to the culture within Downing Street, which makes the accusations of him attending lockdown parties all the more believable.
A dangerous precedent
These issues in isolation are egregious, but become especially damning when one considers them together. These incidents demonstrate a pattern of behaviour that threatens to corrode the integrity of Number 10, which is exacerbated by recent developments such as the prime minister’s attendance of lockdown parties. Downing Street has announced they will not be investigating the alleged blackmailing of backbenchers, which again indicates a culture whereby these types of behaviour are not only permitted but enabled.
Sue Gray has yet to publish her official findings regarding the lockdown parties hosted at Number 10. However, if the past is any indication one may not be surprised if she discovers regulations were broken. The question is whether anything will be done about it.