A grainy picture of Boris Johnson holding a receptacle of alcohol with eight colleagues in isolation is innocuous, says Tom Harwood

'The first glance matters so much more'

Published

Photographs and videos. These have always been the most difficult aspects of PartyGate for the government.

Not the technicality of it all, but how it all looks.

Indeed far from the detail or the technicality – the first glance matters so much more.

To the public, it’s the impression, not the actuality.

Explanations, however logical, tend to look like excuses.

Let’s not forget it was that Allegra Stratton video that first set the impression of partygate in people’s minds. The fact that Downing Street staff were joking about bending the rules – about some quote "business meetings" over Christmas simultaneously being described by staff as parties.

It didn’t matter that the Prime Minister was not at the particular event described in that first famous video, because the impression had been set. The giggling, the deception, the idea it was all being taken as one big joke.

Without that first video, this simply isn’t a story that alights the imagination in the same way.

Colleagues sitting outside in the Downing Street Garden in the Summer of 2020, meeting for and discussing work over wine, as even Dominic Cummings admits of that famous garden photo in isolation is innocuous.

It’s not unlike many other homes or workplaces at the time. Yet following that Stratton video – it takes on a new meaning in the minds of many.

Similarly a description of the Prime Minister with a cake in the Cabinet Room in isolation does not raise an eyebrow.

It is even published in the pages on the Times Newspaper. At the time no one minds. Of course the Prime Minister has "brief respite" at work, as was printed in that paper back in 2020.

And now a grainy picture of someone holding a receptacle of alcohol with eight colleagues. In isolation, without emotion, it is innocuous.

In Durham without the context of the Allegra Stratton video – few care a jot.

Yet in Downing Street the context in the eyes of so many is different.

It doesn’t matter that you can clearly see the Prime Minister’s red box in the in the photograph. It doesn’t matter that he is standing in the doorway. It doesn’t matter that he is addressing work colleagues - indeed some work colleagues he had fallen out with and no doubt did not long to be in a room with.

No it doesn’t even matter that this particular speech was also reported in The Sunday Times in November 2020.

Then Political Editor of the newspaper wrote how the Prime Minister went to his departing Director of Communications’ office “and signed a pair of boxing gloves emblazoned with 'Get Brexit done' before making a speech wishing him well.” The article even quotes some lines from the speech.

At the time no one minded a Prime Minister addressing a group of colleagues, toasting the departure of a colleague.

No one minded the PM and his departing communications chief posing together in a photo with a humorous leaving gift, released to the media at the time either.

Because that was all before the Downing Street Briefing Room video was leaked.

In the minds of so many of the public, who frankly have better things to do with their time than pour over the details of what went on in Downing Street, the impression was set by that first giggling video. Nothing beyond that matters. The context for everything else is set. And how these events were seen – how some of them were even reported in the national press at the time – no longer matters.

Everything is seen through a different lens. Despite the fact that what was being giggled about in the Downing Street Briefing Room video… did not involve the Prime Minister.

No, to so many anything new simply reinforces an impression formed at that initial video leak.

But to step away from what communications staff laughed about without the Prime Minister, to see the events in Downing Street instead though the lens of the media before the Stratton video, by trying to do that we can begin to understand how Boris Johnson may have seen his giving a speech to a room of colleagues, of singing happy birthday before a meeting, of meeting staff in the sunny garden rather than an indoor office… how none of that may have looked like a party to him.

And that’s how it becomes easy to reconcile the idea that the Prime Minister did not mislead the House, with what he has said at the dispatch box.

Far from being beyond the realms of probability – it is entirely probable that the Prime Minister believed what went on at that time was within the rules. How these events were not seen at the time as being parties.

None of this is to say that that wasn’t an error of perception. But it is to cast doubt over whether it was an error of deception.

Clearly there is much to review, and to learn from, and to understand. Which is why the Sue Gray’s report is so welcome this week. Context matters. Dispassionate context.

It doesn’t help to raise emotional comparisons of people not allowed to meet. None of this is about who the Prime Minister met, it’s about what he was doing with those whom he met. What is the technical contested definition of what counts as work.

And ultimately perhaps the court of public opinion is not the best arbiter of that after all.