It seems the seat of government was one long party during the pandemic. Suitcases of alcoholic beverages being lugged into Downing Street. Bottle parties in the garden. Dancing until dawn on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Poor Wilfred’s swing wrecked by drunken revellers.

Even the former head of the Government’s Covid task force, Kate Josephs, has apologised for knocking it back during lockdown.

It’s like the memoirs of a rock band. Was there anyone in Government who wasn’t having boozy late-night seshes during and after lockdown?

Partygate has turned into black farce. It betrays a culture in the civil service of irresponsibility and blatant rule-breaking, at least in Number 10.

These people were responsible for the draconian measures imposed on the rest of us. Yet they clearly did not believe that they were sensible or prudent, otherwise they wouldn’t have flouted them so egregiously in their own backyard.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has handled the affair with what can only be described as monumental incompetence. His repeated denials that he was aware of parties, even though he attended one of them, now looks like an attempt to mislead the House of Commons and the country.

Calls for his resignation are rising to a clamour. From the Scottish leader Douglas Ross down, many senior Conservatives now regard Johnson as a dead man walking. The Tory-supporting Spectator says “the only question now is when, rather than if, he goes”.

And yet, even as this crisis proliferates, I’m not entirely sure we have seen the end of Johnson’s raucous reign in Number 10. The fat lady has yet to sing.

And I mean no disrespect to the civil servant Sue Gray, who holds the PM’s fate in her hands.

Step back one moment and ask: in the history of British politics, can anyone remember any prime minster even contemplating resignation over something so apparently trivial? Neville Chamberlain resigned after the disastrous Norwegian campaign during the Second World War.

Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of the Suez crisis. Imagine future historians reflecting on how Boris Johnson resigned over, er, a garden party?

Moreover, one convened not by him, but by officials? I can think of many more important failings over which he might be considering his position: the needless deaths in care homes, the disaster of Track and Trace, the “unlawful” awarding of PPE contracts ...

We’re told that Johnson is responsible for the “culture” in Number 10 that led to these breaches of lockdown rules. The implication being that he was such a louche and irresponsible hedonist that he somehow infected his officials with an inability to resist letting their hair down.

Yet in our constitutional practice, the civil service is supposed to be organisationally autonomous and free from political direction.
Whitehall jealously defends its distance from government. On its website, the UK Civil Service is adamant that it is “impartial and independent” of Government ministers.

It is the “permanent” civil service that carries on while governments come and go. They can’t turn around now and blame politicians when they fail to live up to their own standards.

Now, I’m not here to defend Boris Johnson. It is naïve to believe that civil servants do not in some manner fall under the influence of the political leadership of the day.

But in the middle of a pandemic it would surely be absurd to expect the Prime Minister to be running from office to office checking whether or not staff are holding goodbye drinks parties. Or scoffing wine and cheese to their desks after legitimate meetings. He wasn’t even in Downing Street on the weekend of the “suitcase” parties last April.

Admittedly, it was naïve for Boris Johnson to attend the “Bring Your Own Bottle” garden party organised by his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds. This was at the height of lockdown in May 2020.

But again, Mr Johnson can reasonably claim that if it was deemed kosher by the top people in the civil service, and it was, who was he to quibble?

Indeed, it might have been churlish for the PM not to show his face at a gathering of hardworking staff who’d been cooped up in Number 10 during one of the greatest national crises since the war. He may have been unwise to attend it for 25 minutes, but that is not the same as being an accessory to breaking the law. His presence in his own garden with his wife, bottle or not, was not a breach of any rules.

This is what will be disturbing the sleep of Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating partygate. She is a creature of Whitehall and knows only too well that the civil service pride themselves on being self-policing.

She is going to have to bite the bullet and finger a raft of her most senior colleagues in what is clearly one of the biggest disciplinary crises the civil service has suffered in living memory.

But is she going to call for Boris Johnson to resign? A Prime Minister elected with a thumping majority by voters who were fully aware of his unconventional character and his rather casual approach to the rules? I don’t think so.

It would be extraordinary for the PM to be blamed for the misbehaviour of civil servants. It’s not in Ms Gray’s remit to change the Government.

There will be oblique criticism, no doubt, of the manner in which Boris Johnson handled the affair. But the civil service, to which Ms Gray belongs, will not want to turn this disciplinary issue into a full-scale constitutional crisis.

It could rebound on them. After all, if the Prime Minister is now being effectively charged with policing the day-to-day behaviour of civil servants, then ministers are going to demand greater control over appointments in future.

If the morals of the mandarins are now a ministerial responsibility, you can wave goodbye to the separation of powers.

Nor can Ms Gray sweep this under the carpet, in the cosy manner of Whitehall tradition. Errant officials usually get “sacked sideways”, promoted to another department, or discreetly retired with full pension rights. Public opinion will not tolerate that. There will have to be casualties at the highest level for this breach of trust between civil servants and the people.

To repeat: during the spring/summer of 2020, the people of Britain were subject to criminal sanctions for behaviour which seems to have been almost routine in Whitehall. Those who didn’t possess a civil service lanyard around their necks were not allowed to leave their homes except to shop and exercise, and were only allowed to meet one other person outdoors.

Thousands of people were served fixed penalty notices for breaking these rules. Many old people, as we heard in emotional accounts last week, died in pitiful isolation because they were not allowed visits from loved ones.

The Queen herself had to sit in black-masked isolation at the funeral of her husband. This is a national disgrace.
Whether Boris Johnson falls on his sword or not, and right now there is no obvious successor, the UK civil service is in serious disarray. A raft of top mandarins should be fearing the chopping block.