There is one common element in the countless reports of alleged parties inside Downing Street: alcohol. From the picture of Boris Johnson sitting by a bottle of wine in his garden to the allegations that a suitcase of booze is being driven into No. 10, it’s clearly thirsty work to run the country.
Some of the most shocking allegations centered around an apparent culture of alcohol use within No. 10, not least the “wine refrigerator” installed in an office, and the evocative image of an official sent to the local Co-op to fill a suitcase of wine during a bubbly departure party.
Sue Gray’s report was quietly condemning this: “Excessive alcohol consumption is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. Steps must be taken to ensure that all public authorities have a clear and robust policy in place that covers consumption of alcohol in the workplace. “
There have been some preliminary steps from Johnson supporters to address the issue, but they have tried to present it as a broader issue that goes beyond the Johnson team.
“The task now is for us to address the underlying culture of Downing Street,” Oliver Dowden, the Conservative chairman, said in a statement earlier this month.
This is strongly disputed by former PMs’ former employees. “This culture did not exist when Oliver worked in No. 10 for David Cameron. It did not exist when I worked there for Theresa May,” remarked Gavin Barwell, both a former Tory MP and May’s former chief of staff. “So I guess what Oliver is saying is that the Prime Minister needs to change the culture he has presided over.”
The truth seems to fall somewhere between these two poles. It’s hardly a secret that No. 10 employees, especially the predominantly young, highly dedicated political nominees, who are well paid but have minimal job security, enjoy both a drink and a gossip – just like the journalists who cultivate them as sources.
This is not unique to the current No. 10. In the pre-Johnson era, the pubs around Westminster, not least the Red Lion, a short trot from both Parliament and Downing Street, hardly lacked custom.
However, there are two elements that may be characteristic of the events revealed in Grays’ report.
One is that elements of Johnson’s Downing Street, including some of those associated with Vote Leave and Boris Johnson, led to a work culture of punishing hours and some time for socializing with non-colleagues.
Drinks inevitably played a role in this. Before the pandemic, a decidedly intoxicated Cummings, sipping a glass of red wine, was once seen walking along Parliament’s press corridor and asking for directions to a particular newspaper office.
There have also been repeated reports of a social culture centered around Carrie Johnson, albeit a less bubbly one involving friends of the Prime Minister’s wife of around her age who work in government.
Perhaps more significant was an outside event: the lockdown. With pubs closed but number 10 still in the office, alcohol also became their outlet for socializing. They might have thought, after all, that they were together anyway and working hard. As Gray notes, this is true: but it was many other people who did not break any rules.