Prime Minister Boris Johnson at one of the gatherings at which some attendees breached COVID-19 regulations. The other participants were made unidentifiable by Sue Gray in this image. Prime Minister Boris Johnson at one of the gatherings at which some attendees breached COVID-19 regulations. The other participants were made unidentifiable by Sue Gray in this image. Source: No 10 Official Photographer - Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license OGL 3

Terina Hine reviews Channel 4’s dramatisation of the infamous lockdown parties at Downing Street under Johnson

It’s an interesting fact that of all the crimes committed during the pandemic, it is the Downing Street parties that did it for Boris Johnson. Watch the Channel 4 docudrama ‘Partygate’ and you quickly realise why.

Writer and director Joseph Bullman, using the Sue Gray report as a ‘roadmap’, exposes the complacency and hedonism of Johnson’s Downing Street clique. The Prosecco swigging bubble is more Bullingdon Club than a workplace.

The No. 10 team was made up of an overprivileged, public school and Oxbridge-educated elite, whose work experience was based in Vote Leave and the right-wing think tanks of Tufton Street. If watching their copious alcohol consumption fails to make you sick, their idolisation of Boris Johnson will more than makeup for it. Clearly, we could not have had less desirable people running the country during the pandemic.

The drama’s use of two fictional characters working as Downing Street Spads is surprisingly effective, enabling the should-we-shouldn’t-we dilemma to be vocalised. The posh one, Annabel, convincingly played by Ophelia Lovibond, is exactly as you would imagine and entirely lacks any moral compass. The other, Grace (Georgie Henley), is the conscience of the piece and provides a voice-over narration.

Unlike the other Spads, Grace is from a northern red-wall town (Darlington) and has working-class roots, she is not really one of the gang and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the selfish decadence and lies of her colleagues. In real life, it’s unlikely there was anyone in the place with Grace’s scruples.

Other characters are real: there’s Helen MacNamara, karaoke queen and Head of Ethics; the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, seen sending his infamous BYOB email to over a hundred members of staff; then there’s Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s then girlfriend, celebrating Dominic Cumming’s departure with Abba’s ‘Winner Takes it All’ blaring in the background; and Kate Josephs, head of the Covid task force, joining in the Christmas cheer at a definitely non-socially distanced party.

By interspersing the narrative with real-life news footage, the drama successfully locates itself within the horrors of Covid. As each party is shown, the date is displayed on the screen, with dialogue referenced to the relevant section of Sue Gray’s report. In one scene, Boris Johnson’s double, voiced by Jon Culshaw, marches seamlessly into a real-life press conference. The double standards are right there, the boss is complicit.

The documentary footage is heartbreaking. Interviews with bereaved families in particular put the Downing Street debauchery in context. Testimonies of Zoom funerals, last goodbyes, and loved ones dying alone, lay bare the amorality and hypocrisy at the heart of government. The contrast could not be more starkly drawn.

The level of entitlement inside Downing Street is breathtaking, they believed they could get away with anything. As Annabel says at one point, the rules, ‘they’re not meant for us.’ And most shockingly of all, she was right.

There were about fourteen parties at No. 10, replete with suitcases of booze wheeled from the Westminster Tesco Express, desktop dancing, a child’s broken swing, coke-snorting, drunken brawls, vomiting, and sex. The police were present throughout, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sue Gray gave them plenty of evidence, including photographic evidence. But the privileged at party central got away with it almost entirely. 

Yes, No. 10 was the most fined house in the country, but the fines meted out were a pittance. Johnson and Sunak both received £50 fixed penalty notices: out in the real world, we hear testimony from one partygoer fined £14,000, and a young man was given a £10,000 fine for organising a snowball fight in a Leeds park. Neither with the means to pay.

The release of the drama was well timed, not just coinciding with the Tory Party conference, but with the second part of the Covid inquiry, the part that will focus on the chaos, toxicity, and dysfunctional mess that was Boris Johnson’s Downing Street. When the first party-gate reports came out with the infamous Allegra Stratton tape, the country was shocked. This retelling should help refocus both our anger and our disgust.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Tagged under: