LONDON — Boris Johnson laid the groundwork for a Whitehall blame game as he seeks to salvage his premiership from allegations of multiple parties at Downing Street while the public stayed at home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I can tell you from the many conversations I’ve had with the prime minister … that he is committed to upping our game,” Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservative Party, told Sky News on Sunday. “We must improve the culture — we must do better.”
It comes amid reports that Johnson is drawing up a list of civil servants who will have to fall on their swords when a much-feared investigation by senior official Sue Gray releases its findings in the coming weeks on the slew of party claims.
Yet while those with deep knowledge of Whitehall agree that leaders of Britain’s impartial civil service have a case to answer over the allegations, few believe the prime minister himself can escape blame.
“I think to say ‘oh, the prime minister was just sort of sitting upstairs, completely oblivious, and actually totally disapproved of all his staff doing this’ — for God’s sake, pull the other one, mate,” said Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant who now works for think tanks.
“Ultimately, there may be some disciplinary issues within the civil service — big judgment questions over some of the senior people in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office and their sense of what’s appropriate … but none of that means there aren’t questions for politicians as well,” she added.
Few dispute that some senior officials are deserving of scrutiny. One figure likely to be the subject of such attention is the head of the civil service, Simon Case.
Case, previously a senior aide to Britain’s royal family, was given the top civil service job — that of cabinet secretary — in September 2020. It came as the prime minister and his then-top adviser Dominic Cummings sought to reshape the way the U.K. civil service operates.
When claims of No. 10 partying first emerged, Case was tasked with investigating. But he was soon forced to step aside amid reports of lockdown-breaking social gatherings in his own department. Civil service officials claimed he had attended drinks outside his office in 70 Whitehall in December 2020 — allegations that were categorically denied by the Cabinet Office.
“There is clearly a wider issue around managing those who work in 10 Downing Street to ensure that everyone is following the rules which apply to all civil servants,” said one former permanent secretary (a senior job in the U.K. civil service), pointing out that those rules apply to both permanent officials and politically-appointed special advisers.
“That responsibility falls to the head of the civil service and cabinet secretary, not least because No. 10 is itself a part of the Cabinet Office and not a separate department,” the same former permanent secretary noted.
They also warned that a leaked email showing another civil servant, Johnson’s principal private secretary, inviting staff to “bring their own booze” to a drinks party raised further questions for Case’s management of officialdom.
“The cabinet secretary is also the direct manager of the prime minister’s principal private secretary,” the ex-official said. “There has been an absence of leadership here, which affects the wider civil service when they see different rules applying inside No 10.”
Dave Penman, head of the FDA trade union representing senior government officials, on Sunday pushed back strongly at the idea of wider problems with the civil service culture that now need to be addressed.
“Those in leadership positions bear the most responsibility for this,” he told Sky News. Penman questioned how a culture had been created in No. 10 where the kind of parties now extensively reported on were ever deemed acceptable. The buck, he suggested, stops with ministers — and Boris Johnson himself.
“The talk in the papers of a civil service culture? That’s not a civil service culture I recognize after being around Whitehall for 20 years,” he said. “It may be a No. 10 culture, but it’s not a civil service culture.”
James Johnson, a former No. 10 pollster who now runs his own company, thinks seeking to shift the blame could go down badly with voters, who are already turning away from the Conservatives in large numbers.
The perception of a cover-up — No.10, and Johnson himself, downplayed early reports of revelry during lockdowns — had done the most damage to the prime minister’s personal brand, the pollster said.
“If No. 10’s response is to — in the voters’ eyes — carry on deflecting, then I think that is going to arguably not only not heal things, but actually make things worse, because that’s the kind of thing that’s annoying voters — the fact that Boris Johnson is not standing back and taking all the blame.”