My not so brief encounter with Sue Gray played havoc with my acid reflux.
Good to finally meet you, Sue. Your name has become somewhat notorious of late, what with this long-anticipated report you’ve been writing. I hadn’t even heard of you before all this unnecessary furore that’s been whipped up those pesky media vultures.
Joe Public doesn’t give two hoots about what really goes on in Downing Street, you know. This whole debacle is completely unnecessary, if you ask me. No, I know you didn’t ask me, Sue. I’m simply voicing what every other Tory MP is thinking, as I’m sure you know.
You see, the thing is Sue, everybody keeps referring to the word, “party,” but these things weren’t parties at all. For the most part, they were more like “accidental gatherings” or “occasional non-occasions.” And, of course, there were always going to be a few “incidental incidents” and “metaphorical meetings.” Not to mention the odd “minor birth anniversary acknowledgement” and “leaving do..n’ts…”
What’s that? Oh, yes, I’m sure you have a lot of people to see today. Yes, let’s “crack on,” as you so sportingly put it.
20th May 2020? Which day of the week was that? A Wednesday. Well, there you have it. We would never have organised a party on a Wednesday. Parties always happen on Fridays; everyone knows that.
A BYOB staff gathering in the garden of №10, you say? Well, what’s the harm in that? We’d have been outdoors, making the most of the lovely weather. Yes, I concede that there may have been a few boxes of wine transported in suitcases. Overseeing a pandemic is thirsty work, you know!
Actually, now you come to mention it, I think I do recall that day. We’d just had word that a knighthood had been approved for Captain Tom Moore. You remember, that doddery old chap who raised £33 million for the NHS. Turned out he’d inspired a national fundraising movement, and a cool £800 million was donated to the coffers. Of course, we were all on a high at Number 10 because it meant we could effectively deduct this amount from the extra funding we’d promised the NHS.
I think it was also the day Oliver Dowden gave the daily press briefing. He had been instructed to announce that we were stepping down from a Level 4 Covid alert to a Level 3. So, good news for everyone all round. And definitely deserving of a cheeky little drink in the garden with colleagues. A few self-congratulatory drinks and mutual pats on the back all round, I seem to recall. Of course, we had to keep the noise down a bit, since we didn’t want to drown out Oliver’s address to the nation, which was happening simultaneously.
What’s that? Am I aware what the Level 3 rules were? Erm, I can’t recall off the top of my head. It was a long time ago now, and I missed the press conference because I was at the party … I mean, I was in the garden. I suspect you’re about to jog my memory, though.
Ah, just the one person outside your household was it? What, even outdoors? I see. And the 2 metre rule still applied too? Right. Well, as I say, it was all a long time ago now. There’s no point in crying over spilt milk. Anyhow, I think we’ll get away with that one, as Martin Reynolds would say.
No, Sue, I don’t mean to trivialise the matter. And I’m truly sorry to hear that your friend wasn’t able to be with her mother during her dying moments. And, of course, it’s terribly sad that only a handful of people were able to attend her funeral on the day in question. But you can’t compare the two things directly.
After all, you don’t see Her Majesty running to the press or the police to complain about the two staff leaving occurrences in Number 10 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. Yes, I am aware that our dear Queen sat all alone due to the Covid restrictions, but I’m sure she didn’t mind. She’s a tough cookie, after all.
Yes, Sue, admittedly alcohol was consumed on the night in question, but this was simply to toast the lifetime achievements of the Duke of Edinburgh; it was a final mark of respect. In fact, some of the attendees were so devastated by the passing of His Royal Highness that they continued to toast him until 4am.
Of course, under usual circumstances government officials should obey the rules they themselves have made … What’s that? Well, yes, I suppose they were technically “laws,” but it’s a question of semantics at the end of the day, Sue. Rules … laws … it doesn’t matter what you call them. The fact remains that we were living through unprecedented times … the likes of which we have never witnessed before … and all those other cliches we like to trot out at every opportunity. And desperate times call for desperate measures. Such as letting off a bit of steam in the garden. What’s the big deal?
Shall we move on? What’s the next date on your list? 18th June 2020. If my memory serves me right, I believe that was the day Baroness Dido Harding presented the nation with her pretty, colourful flow charts to explain the new Test & Trace system. Just one of many examples of money well-spent by that department, if I may say so. It was a pity that the app we developed didn’t work on iPhones, though.
Anyhow, I think it was Matt Hancock who led the press briefing alongside Dido that day …
You have a question about Mr Hancock? Of course, I’ll give you any information I have, Sue. I’m an open book, as it were.
Ah, yes, come to think of it, we did suspect that Matt kept disappearing for very small, separate gatherings of his own. We later found out that these informal affairs were being held with one particular colleague in the stationery cupboard just outside the Cabinet Office.
When I challenged him about this, he told me that because he was Health Secretary, Patrick Vallance had tasked him with running a scientific experiment to discover just how transmissible the new Kent variant was. There was some debate over the reliability of lateral flow tests at the time, and the theory was that a more reliable sample might be extracted by licking someone else’s tonsils before swabbing.
Sadly though, the experiment ran into trouble and Matt resigned from his post before a reliable conclusion could be reached. I think he eventually ran out of sinews to strain, sadly. Lucky for him that he wasn’t still around when the proverbial hit the fan with that damning report. You know, the one where the High Court ruled that the government had breached their duties under common law by discharging vulnerable, elderly hospital patients into care homes at the height of the pandemic.
Anyway, back to the date in question. I believe you may be referring to a minute assembly of personages who gathered — nay, loosely stood about in a detached, anti-social manner — to bid farewell to a colleague who was leaving us.
Well, yes, Sue, I can see how pizza, Prosecco, karaoke, vomiting, and altercations might look bad, but it wasn’t that raucous an event … I mean, it wasn’t even an event, as such. It was more like a teeny work meeting that ran over ever so slightly. Only one person was sick. And not that many of us stayed until 3am.
Now, I do remember 19th June 2020 quite well. That’s because it’s the PM’s birthday, of course. Apparently, Carrie had wanted to cheer him up a bit. He was quite depressed and hadn’t been sleeping too well at the time. She said he’d been having nightmares about being chased by 32 billion individual items of PPE, all of which had heads just like that terrifying, spiky Covid graphic.
So, Carrie concocted a plan to accost him with a cake in the cabinet room. This genius plan would actually prove quite handy later, as the PM would be able to claim that he had no knowledge of the … (damn it, I’m running out of alternative “party” nouns — should have remembered to bring the thesaurus)… he would be able to claim that he had no prior knowledge of the planned ambush, and subsequent “cake presentation.”
I remember thinking that this happening in the cabinet room was quite unusual, as all the other staff birthday par.. acknowledgments had taken place in the small conference room next door to the bathroom. The reason being that every time we presented a colleague with a celebratory cake, we would have to sing “Happy Birthday,” and this would inevitably lead to a Pavolvian-style hand-washing exodus. Incidentally, all that incessant hand-washing cost me a fortune in Nivea. We never wore face masks, though. We all knew they didn’t work.
13th November 2020. Hmm, doesn’t ring a bell. Just one moment; let me check my diary. 13th November 2020 … 13th November… Ah, yes! That’s right. This was a miniscule occurrence, whereby we simply marked Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Yes, Lee Cain. He was one of the PM’s special advisers. It’s true, quite a few of the PM’s advisers resigned, yes. Your point being …?
No, that Cummings creature didn’t attend this extremely tiny non-gathering. He resigned the next day, actually. As I know you’re aware, Sue, I was one of those who stood by Cummings during the Barnard Castle affair. And yes, regretfully, I did tell Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy that Durham is home to the very best elite optometrists in England. I put myself out on a limb to defend that moronic little turncoat. I hope he rots in hell. Anyway, where were we?
27th November 2020? Surely, we must be nearly done, in that case. We’re not? Another 10, you say? We’ll be here all week at this rate …
Look, Sue, as delightful as this has been, I have just realised the time and I must take my leave, unfortunately. I have an extremely important meeting with the Chancellor about a capital gains tax rebate at 3 o’clock, and I have forsaken several minutes of my usual two hour lunch break to speak with you.
As a result, I will need to wolf down a three-course lunch in double time, and this will undoubtedly set off my acid reflux. I don’t suppose you have any Rennies in your handbag? No, I don’t think diazepam will do the trick. Thanks, anyway.
Well, thank goodness you’re informed. I truly had no idea that the Chancellor is off with Covid today. My SPAD failed to brief me about this regrettable development. Honestly, you just can’t get the staff these days. Well, I suppose we may as well continue then, as you are so insistent.
I must eat something first, though. I can feel my blood sugar dipping dangerously low. Perhaps we should take a short break and partake in a steak sandwich and a glass or two of vino in the bar? Yes, we’ll make it a very short break. I can sense that you are under significant pressure to write this damned report at lightning speed.
Well, I don’t think I have ever eaten a sandwich so quickly. I can already feel the acid rising. I’m going to suffer for this.
Before we resume, please may I see the list of alleged rule-breaking dates to see what we’re dealing with?
Well, this is extraordinary! What a storm in a teacup about nothing. Most of these microscopic “encounters” were so brief that Noel Coward would have struggled to imagine them. They were so fleeting that they hardly took place at all. Indeed, this is borne out by the fact that most of my colleagues can’t even recall them.
Could these memory lapses have been caused by the quaffing of dozens of crates of wine and Prosecco? Certainly not, Sue. I have a feeling you’re being a little facetious now. Still, I’m a good sport. And I know you wouldn’t really begrudge your fellow civil servants a small tipple after a hard day’s graft, while they enjoy each other’s company — even if it does happen to be during a national lockdown. I’m sure you would do the same.
In fact, wouldn’t everyone?