Dave Penman: time for No.10 to settle its tab on Partygate

No-one can escape their personal accountability for following the letter and spirit of the law, and those in government should set an example
Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy Live News

By Dave Penman

18 Jan 2022

I first moved to London in the 90s as an organiser for PCS. Part of my pitch was Whitehall and I couldn’t believe my luck, large groups of potential members all in the one building with almost unlimited access.

I recall visiting reps in a large Whitehall HQ one afternoon and, when finished, being invited to go to “the bar” for a drink. I was surprised that a central London building had a bar, so I headed down to the basement, expecting a night of low-price boozing. To be honest, “bar” was pushing it a little. It was more of a kiosk, run as a hobby by some Belgian beer fanatics. I joined a rather sad group – mainly men in their 50s, all nylon jumpers and beards – then quickly made my excuses.

Civil servants I know work incredibly hard, as do the staff in Downing Street. There are many whose social lives revolve around their work and, when you work in central London, that’s easy to combine. Westminster is hardly short of bars and for a while FDA HQ was by St James’s Park, right in the heart of Whitehall. I’ve been known to enjoy the odd tipple or two and, when in one of the many local hostelieries, you could tell there were large groups of staff enjoying an after-work drink, particularly on a Thursday or Friday evening. I’m not saying I can spot a civil servant at 20 yards across a crowded pub but when you’re an organiser on a recruitment drive, you get a sixth sense for these things.

I’m old enough to remember when it wouldn’t be frowned upon to go for a few drinks at lunchtime and come back smelling of booze, or the 1980s as it’s called. That culture quickly disappeared, with a recognition that alcohol and public service delivery are not a good mix.

I’ve been around Whitehall now for more than 20 years. I’ve been in most departments late in the afternoon or early evening, as it’s the witching hour for union branch AGMs or recruitment drives. I’ve known hundreds of reps, from dozens of departments and the stories emerging from Downing Street do not represent anything approaching a culture that I’m familiar with.

"I’ve seen nothing to suggest that any cultural problems around No.10 are anything other than that, a No.10 issue"

As those around a beleaguered prime minister plot their “Save Big Dog” strategy, a narrative is emerging of a “civil service culture” that’s led to the incidents now being investigated as part of “Partygate”. Seeking to distance prime minister from a series of damaging allegations, their line appears to drift from a “didn’t inhale” strategy, where he stumbled, unprepared upon dozens of staff drinking and assumed it was an extension of the working day, to “he regularly dons noise cancelling earphones at around 4pm each day to concentrate on detailed policy documents, so probably wouldn’t have seen or heard anything”.

I’ve seen nothing to suggest that any cultural problems around No.10 are anything other than that, a No.10 issue. Sue Gray has a difficult enough job without me adding my tuppence worth in but those who want to conveniently point the finger elsewhere might be better spending their time considering how this might have developed.

No.10 is an incredibly pressured environment at the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic, few of us can imagine what it was like to be working in that pressure cooker. Although, maybe not that few. Civil servants up and down the country were at the heart of the response to Covid. Many, around 25%, were also in their offices throughout the pandemic. Those that weren’t were working longer hours at home, juggling the challenges of home schooling while developing innovate new ways of working to keep public services going and respond the health and economic emergencies.

Those on the NHS and social care frontline were working flat out, many in full PPE, and countless other public servants as well as those who kept our food supplies going were, quite literally, critical workers.

No-one can escape their personal accountability for following the letter and spirit of the law. Those in government have an additional responsibility to set the example they seek others to follow. In a small rarefied environment like No.10, it can be easy to lose perspective.

That’s why leadership is so important. Motivating beleaguered, exhausted staff by ensuring they know what an incredibly important job they’re doing is vital to keep morale up but understanding the broader perspective, making the right calls and living your values is also critical, particularly in a small organisation, which ultimately No.10 is.

Culture and tone in organisations are invariably set by those at the top. Demonstrating the best of behaviours and challenging the worst comes with the burden of leadership. If you’re not prepared or not able to do that, don’t go looking for a leadership position because you can’t hide from the accountability that follows.

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