At no other point in his unlikely premiership has Boris Johnson been closer to a career-ending loss of public trust than now. But who is behind the stream of damaging material feeding the public outrage? A theory.
“I have never briefed against you: believe me, when I do, you’ll fucking know about it.” This ominous warning was allegedly uttered by Dominic Cummings to Boris Johnson, after his sacking in November 2020.
Boris Johnson is a politician like no other. An often-ridiculous figure, his faults are precisely why he’s been so popular. In an age of slick politicians and spin, he’s ruffled and untidy; his remarks are off-the-cuff and amiably buffoonish. He appears genuine and unscripted. Perhaps more controversially, some might suggest there’s a deference to his success. Could anyone but a toff pull off his schtick?
But then came Partygate.
Unlike other controversies to swirl around him, it strikes at the families and homes of his voters. Quite simply the charge is that while the country endured COVID lockdown, while people had to cancel weddings, see elderly relatives through the windows of their care homes, bury their loved ones with just a handful of mourners in attendance, Johnson and his advisers cavorted in drunken parties.
The public’s reaction has been immediate and scathing, and the scandal has plunged the Government into crisis. But while Parliament waits on a report by civil servant Sue Gray, and the Met Police belatedly starts to investigate, there’s a pause to proceedings. And this gives us time to ask a question that has so far attracted little attention: who’s doing the leaking?
The exposure of two parties got the ball rolling on the scandal and gives us our best indication of who might be behind it. The first is an event on 15th May 2020. The second is one five days later, on 20th May. At the time social mixing between households was limited to two people, who could only meet outdoors, and at a distance of at least 2 metres.
The 15th of May-event was revealed in the Guardian on December 2021, complete with a photograph overlooking the Downing Street Gardens. In the foreground, sitting around a table are Boris and Carrie Johnson; Dominic Cummings is sat across from them. On the table are cheese and wine.
But Cummings, in his substack of 7th January 2022, dismissed this party. He claimed it was a work event and did not break the rules. Instead, he said people should look at a different event, that of 20th May. This again was held in the Downing Street Gardens, but this time people were invited to “socially distanced drinks”. Cummings alluded to an email from a “senior NO10 official” and claimed he and at least one other special adviser warned in writing that the event was inadvisable and appeared to breach Covid rules.
Soon after, Robert Peston tweeted the identity of the senior NO10 official, revealing him to be Martin Reynolds, The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary.
And within a matter of days, Paul Brand, ITV’s UK Editor, had been leaked a copy of the Reynolds’ email, complete with the devastating and infamous line to “bring your own booze”.
And the revelations got worse, with Peston tweeting on 12th January that not only was the Prime Minister at the party, but so was his wife, Carrie, who was drinking gin.
Cummings is known to have a stash of documents and emails from his Downing Street days. Furthermore, it’s known Peston is one of the journalists who regularly speaks to him. But we need to be cautious before suggesting Partygate is all the work of the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser, not least because he revealed the existence of the 20th May Party in response to that of 15th May, at which he’d been photographed.
So, who was behind the 15th May leak? Clearly not Cummings.
A clue is in the angle of the photograph. The Telegraph published a Downing Street floorplan, which showed it was taken from a veranda reached from a first-floor function room. NO10 sources claimed it was used by officials and special advisers of NO11. So, allies of the chancellor Rishi Sunak. But a Treasury source argued the room which leads onto the veranda was unoccupied at the time, and not solely used by the Treasury. Furthermore, they claimed the room was unlocked and thus anyone could have taken the photo.
But the Chancellor has been notably lukewarm in his defence of the Prime Minister during the Partygate scandal. Indeed, when Boris Johnson faced Prime Minister’s questions on 12th January where Keir Starmer called for his resignation, Sunak was the only major Cabinet Minister not in attendance.
There have been other leaks too. Who leaked the Allegra Stratton tape, where she was seen to be joking with advisers about Partygate during a mock press conference? Again, this is a story which ITV’s Paul Brand broke. He said he was aware of the tape for some time. The Telegraph lay the blame on a Downing Street insider, or perhaps one of the camera technicians (the mock press conference was filmed for later viewing). But the Daily Mail pointed the finger at Dominic Cummings.
There has been a steady stream of leaks apart from these. The Times obtained photos of a buffet party in Conservative Party headquarters on December 14th, while Boris Johnson was pictured sitting between two staffers at a Christmas quiz on December 15th. And there have been various alleged parties where photos are yet to emerge, most notoriously April 16th, 2021, the night before the funeral of Prince Phillip.
So, we have several leaks and multiple suspects, which leads to one of two hypotheses. Either somebody started the process, and multiple parties piled in, sensing the Prime Minister’s blood. Or they’re coordinated.
The evidence for the former might be Cummings denial of, and attempt to distract from, the 15th May. Perhaps this was leaked by the Treasury, and Cummings then revealed the 20th May, the revelations then setting the ball rolling?
Notably, whenever the scandal threatens to burn itself out, some new, excellently timed poison is introduced into the bloodstream. It is hence possible to imagine an uneasy alliance of actors inside Downing Street 10 and 11 collaborating to ‘remove and replace’ the PM: Cummings, Sunak, and their respective aides. In this reading, Cummings might well have been irritated by the Guardian’s photo of 15th May. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting the photo to show him there? Or maybe he was expecting a different event to be exposed? Or perhaps, the master strategist he is, his seeming irritation is a double bluff, a way of introducing another party into the mix? He’s already left Downing Street after all and has far less to fear than Johnson.
Whatever the case, it is likely that the Prime Minister remembers his chief adviser’s haunting resignation warning, and rues not taking it seriously.
A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic.