During a stint in the 1990s as editor of magazine the Spectator, Boris Johnson would claim that the modern ordinary British male was ‘useless’ – “if he is blue collar, he is likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”. The then-journalist was fresh from a degree largely spent violently drunk, destroying property, mass-vandalising and harassing staff, and a graduate post from which he had been fired for lying. Twenty years later, and after a process which I can only imagine consisted of tallying up the results of the Conservative cabinet’s chunder chart, checking Dominic Cummings’ BeReal, and trying to figure out which members of staff were beneath the big sunglasses and sombreros in the photo booth prints, the authorities investigating the Downing Street parties would hit Johnson, now Prime Minister, with a fixed-penalty fine for his participation in law-breaking lockdown parties. Following the 20 members of his staff who had received £50 fines the week before – an amount which would hit them especially hard after they had to pay for their own booze – Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak would receive the fines as part of ongoing investigations by the Met Police into twelve separate get-togethers and parties across 2020 and 2021. Criminality, hopelessness, drunkenness – they all applied, but hey, nothing’s that serious when you’re wearing a suit.
For men like Johnson and Sunak, for whom dodging meaningful penalties began with carving the family crest into the Eton bunkbed, continued through Oxford, and then all the way to parliament, the fines they have now received amount to below petty change. The consequences faced by top politicians and civil servants partying in years when 170,000 people died of Covid-19 seem to vary from being extra nice to your wife that week, to having to cut down the ice budget next time. From the circle of public schoolboys defining their youth, to that exact same circle of public schoolboys defining the rest of their lives, the PM and Chancellor’s attitudes reflect the institutions which have prepared them for a life in which consequences and judgement is something reserved for the ‘blue collar’ worker Johnson was so frustrated by. Private school, Oxbridge – institutions which have failed to teach their wealthy students lessons in self-denial or responsibility – have facilitated a culture of self-indulgence and contempt for the rules which bind normal people, even if you’re the one making them.
To track the development of this decadence and corruption, let me take you back to their university days. Picture it. Oxford, 1980s. Starship tops the charts, mullets are in, meritocracy hasn’t been invented yet, life is sweet. It is especially sweet for students like MP son Bartholomew Smith, who a decade prior is found guilty of “dangerous driving causing death”, his fifth driving charge, after four people die in a three-car pile up he causes after driving intoxicated ‘at maniacal speed’ after a Bullingdon Club dinner – and who is given a fine and ten-year driving ban. This scene, where Boris Johnson first learns to see a fine as a sign of a night of jolly good fun, eagerly welcomes him and equally well-educated friends George Osbourne and David Cameron, who spend their university days at the same lavish, rowdy dinners which Smith had (allegedly) attended before orphaning the children of 31-year-old Peter Houseman. Various sources have testified to future members of various Conservative cabinets engaging in criminal behaviours, causing havoc, and solving potential issues with extensive family wealth. Former member of the club Radek Sikorski would recall shaking Johnson’s hand after returning to his room to find it trashed and vandalised, champagne sprayed across the walls. A similarly raucous scene would be described by a source for the Observer, who testified to a culture in the Bullingdon Club in the mid-1980s which “was to get extremely drunk and exert vandalism.” She would assert that Johnson was “one of the big beasts of the club. He was up for anything. They treated certain types of people with absolute disdain, and referred to them as ‘plebs’ or ‘grockles’, and the police were always called ‘plod’.” Her description of the messes the club left staff members to clean up – recalling one instance in particular in which every piece of furniture in a recently-refurbished room was smashed, liquid poured down the walls and the mess left in a pile in the centre of the room, prompting “the clerk of works looking at the mess in complete dismay” – is testament to a group for whom consequences were deemed impossible, and cleaning something that happened once you left the room.
So while other students were doing boring student-type things (Jo Johnson was publishing articles about marijuana, Jacob Rees-Mogg was writing articles about how gay people shouldn’t have rights) here were Boris Johnson and David Cameron, attending excursions to smash restaurant windows, breakfast events with hired prostitutes, and parties at which Ros Wynne Jos would describe “smashed up rooms, vomit-strewn carpets, turds in bathtubs, and other ‘hilarious’ japes involving other bodily fluids…someone had to clean all this up… long before the minimum wage.” Two of the future prime ministers, alongside various MPs, businessmen and civil servants, had spent university partying, drug-taking, smashing up furniture, spraying a tuition-fee’s worth of money across walls, destroying antiques, setting fires, making life hellish for staff and paying off any potential problems – in short, preparing themselves for a life devoted to public service.
Let’s flash forward. It’s 2011, Katy Perry tops the charts, meritocracy is in (or at least Tony Blair has said he’s got it started, and we can believe him because he was very well-educated). David Cameron returns to the UK from an Italian holiday with his good friend from Bullingdon Club days Sebastian White to deal with the London Riots. And suddenly he’s not so keen on fines, or on allowances for the ‘youthful indiscretion’ which saw him engage in petty crime. No, the same man who had spent his university days in a cycle of criminality would now say that “these riots were not about government cuts… this was about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.” Funnily, the same man running from police after nights of smashing windows, gorging himself on attacking people’s livelihoods, and treating those he deemed beneath him as if their purpose in life was to clean up his mess, now preached ‘morality’, against those who lacked ‘self-restraint’. Breaking the law was suddenly not so cool; in fact, in David Cameron’s own words, this was now “Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised.” It is certainly a shame that nobody told Nicolas Robinson, 23, who was imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of water, or the unnamed twelve-year-old given a six-month youth detention order for smashing a window (which he had done the previous year, at age eleven) that what they were doing was fine, they just had to do it in a £1,200 tailcoat. 2011 – coincidentally, the same year that Bullingdon-club member Nick Green would so seriously injure a fellow student that he had to be hospitalised, with no charge – would see over 2,000 people prosecuted for involvement in the riots. In 2012, the BBC reported an average sentence length for the riots of 16.8 months, with prison sentences overall totalling over 1,800 years. A 2011 interview with the Prime Minister questioning his behaviour during his university days in the context of this administration of ‘tough justice’ saw Cameron give the delightfully vague response that “we all did stupid things when we are young and we should learn the lessons.” Some, it seems, were to learn the lessons in prison, while others could reflect upon them fondly from an Italian yacht.
George Osbourne, another Bullingdon club member and Cameron’s chancellor (who was photographed in the early 2000s with his arm around escort Natalia Rowe and with speculated cocaine in front of him) would similarly bemoan the ‘moral collapse’ of rioters – the challenge for the government going forward was, he suggested, “dealing with people… helping them feel… that they know the difference between right and wrong,”. George had picked up morals from an early age from his baronet father and Eton education, but not everyone was so lucky. When Osbourne would be asked about the time he spent as a young person smashing up property with the Bullingdon club, his response was that when looking at old photos “you cringe a bit.”
Flash forward again. Boris Johnson is in power, not quite ready to put his partying days behind him. Meritocracy is something Rishi Sunak is taking care of by making £100,000 donations to Winchester College. Since 2016, the Prime Minister has attended at least six meetings of the Leader’s Dining Club, in which members pay £50,000 to “receive regular private dinners, lunches and drinks receptions with the prime minister and other senior Tory figures”. In 2021 – having in 2013 described his Bullingdon days as a “truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness” – Johnson shows how far he had left his university days behind by appointing former club member and university friend Ewen Fergusson to Whitehall’s independent sleaze watchdog. The City solicitor and participant in the infamous 1987 photograph (where he stood behind Johnson! Ha!) was selected in 2021 after the committee passed over 171 candidates. And while some might suggest that if they were looking for someone with a close personal history and extensive experience with sleaze and corruption, they had found the right man for the job, Fergusson’s ability to claim £240 for each day he worked on committee business was a reminder that hypocrisy never had, and never would mean anything to this circle.
And why should COVID put a stop to all of this fun? Here we come to the gatherings – presumably slightly tame affairs in comparison with the university days of many participants, but these were trying times. 2020 was a summer of wine, cheese and garden parties. First up, ITV would report 40 staff members attending a 20th May party which Johnson and his wife had attended – the defence: Johnson ‘categorically’ denied knowing about the event beforehand (they must’ve hid the piñata well) or receiving warnings that it breached the rules he set for the public (a stirring defence, if only he’d known someone who could tell him). Next, 19th June was Johnson’s 56th birthday, with 30 people alleged to have attended a party at Downing Steet at a time when social gatherings outside were limited to six people. At the party Johnson was presented with a Union Jack cake, in case you were worried he didn’t stand in solidarity with his country. Upon his dismissal, adviser Dominic Cummings would allege that a second, raucous party took place later that night in the PM’s Downing Street apartment, at a time of second lockdown when indoor gatherings were forbidden. And endless was the rest of the social events calendar for the Downing Street fraternity – November was a speech in a room of 50 people, December was indoor gatherings at party headquarters during the London Tier 3 ban, a Number 10 Christmas zoom quiz, a Cabinet Office staff social event (attended by senior civil servant Simon Case, initially tasked with investigating other party claims) and another gathering on the same day.
2021 was a tough year, with Boris Johnson trying to cope with the Partygate scandal, the extent of his own constant lying and story-changing, and presumably a big hangover at the same time. Having gone from telling MPs that “no rules were broken” to now stressing that people focus on Ukraine or the cost of living rather than worry about him being fined for attendance, the Prime Minister truly showed his background. This was a man who was used to throwing around hush money, who was used to letting other people clean up his mess, who was used to those he thought beneath him taking the blame for his own faults, who was used to breaking the law and laughing about it. The only part of Partygate which was new for Boris Johnson – not criminality, not lying, not failing at his job, not being fined an amount he could lose without batting an eye – was that there was a risk people might notice him doing what he had been doing since age 18.
Image Credit: David Sedlecký / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons