When Sue Gray’s report on the Partygate scandal landed in No.10, Boris Johnson honed in on its most damaging revelations.
With less than two hours to go before he had to face MPs in the Commons, the prime minister and his team scoured print-outs of the report.
Sources said the PM was “really shocked” by some of the detail which exposed a pattern of “rudeness” towards key workers.
Among juicy details of boozy parties, the senior civil servant lifted the lid on a “lack of respect and poor treatment” of security and cleaning staff.
“It was late at night and they were pissed and they never wanted the party to stop”
– Downing Street source tells HuffPost UK
Workers, some of whom will be the lowest paid in Downing Street, had been left to deal with the fallout of drunken lockdown busting parties.
It was not a good look for a prime minister who owes much of his 2019 general election victory to working class voters.
However, Johnson and those around him insist he had “no knowledge” of the goings-on outlined in the report.
Gray’s investigation outlined booze-fuelled fights, vomiting, damage to property, wine-stained walls and karaoke machines on standby.
She said the morning after a Christmas knees-up on December 18, 2020, a cleaner “noted that there has been red wine spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper”.
Gray criticised the “unacceptable” way in which staff were left feeling “unable to raise properly” their concerns in relation to law-breaking parties.
“I found that some staff have witnessed or been subjected to behaviour at work which they had felt concerned about,” she said.
It had also been reported by the BBC that Downing Street security officers, known as custodians, had been “laughed at” by partying press officers when they tried to close an event down.
It was little wonder that Johnson and his team wanted to get on the front foot of the issue after the report dropped on Wednesday.
“They are not only left to clean up the dirt but are treated as such.”
– The Cleaners Union
Apologising in the Commons, the prime minister said he was “appalled” by the treatment of the security and cleaning staff and that he expected the culprits to say sorry too.
During the ensuing debate, he described the revelations as “intolerable” but insisted: “This is the first I’ve seen of the detailed criticisms of civil servants for that abuse.”
Johnson then returned to Downing Street and went to see the custodians at the front door of No.10 to personally say sorry for what had happened.
Sources told HuffPost UK that Johnson told them he had no idea about what they had put up with and asked them how they felt about it all.
It is understood some of them said it was all part of the job while others admitted they felt “battered and bruised” by the “rudeness” they had experienced.
The prime minister then carried out “a tour” of Downing Street to speak to other members of staff including other security guards, those in the post room and IT.
And on Thursday he came down from his flat to speak to the cleaners in private, sources said.
The PM’s allies claim he was “badly let down” by staff – most of whom they say no longer work in Downing Street.
But, while they insist the situation has improved, the stinging revelations are not going away.
On Friday afternoon ministerial aide Paul Holmes announced his resignation the same day cleaners staged a protest outside Downing Street.
Tory MP Holmes, an aide to Priti Patel, said his work as a constituency MP had been “tarnished by the toxic culture” in No.10.
“Revelations from the Sue Gray report that staff and cleaners were not treated properly is both disappointing and unacceptable.”
– Tory MP Paul Holmes
In particular Holmes highlighted the “disappointing and unacceptable” treatment of staff and cleaners, adding: “It clearly showed a culture in No.10 that was distasteful.”
It comes as sources describe an aggressive and misogynistic “boys club” operating at the heart of No.10.
Others working in Downing Street also outlined allegations of harassment and sexism.
“They tended to be rude because it was late at night and they were pissed and they never wanted the party to stop,” one said.
Some point to the Vote Leave loyalists, now largely ousted from No.10, who have previously been blamed for fostering a toxic laddish culture across government as well as allegedly briefing against Johnson’s wife Carrie Symonds and calling her “Princess Nut Nut”.
Others point to a clubby “culture of entitlement” that predates Johnson’s era.
“There were real issues there, even going back to Theresa May’s time,” a member of the PCS union working in the Cabinet Office said.
“There’s definitely a culture of senior people seeing themselves as not having to follow the same rules as everyone else, I think they call it ‘exceptionalism’.
“They’re the exception to the rule, the rest of the civil service has to follow a thing called the civil service code but they don’t feel they need to do that because they’re No.10 and all that goes out the window.
“So because people felt like that, inevitably, that means there was inappropriate behaviour and bullying.
“I know the phrase ‘toxic culture’ maybe gets overused, but it really was like that.”
They said people were afraid to speak out as it could prove to be “career suicide” and added: “When you go to work in No.10, you expect it to be stressful, it’s high profile, it’s going to be demanding, probably long hours, and probably really tight deadlines and so on.
“But this was something different. There was a kind of nastiness to it. Real kind of white male dominance.”
They said the revelations in the Sue Gray report did not come as a surprise, adding: “We’ve known that for years.”
The treatment of cleaners and security staff has sparked fury from MPs, journalists and celebrities.
Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said the treatment of service staff revealed much about the “disrespectful attitude” to working people at the “highest levels” of the government.
“The treatment of service staff exposed in Sue Gray’s report reveals much about the disrespectful attitude to working people at the highest levels of this government.”
– Angela Rayner
She told HuffPost UK: “It’s an echo of the notorious Bullingdon Club of which Boris Johnson was a member, famous for trashing restaurants and smashing wine bottles before later handing a wad of cash from their overflowing wallets to the servants who had to clean up their shameful mess.
“The dehumanising treatment of service workers as worthless and invisible exposed in Boris Johnson’s rotten Downing Street is emblematic of the practices that have been allowed to fester in workplaces up and down this country over a decade.
“Whether it’s inadequate sick pay, the basic denial of job security and respect at work or the erosion of basic rights at work, this government has failed working people in Downing Street and beyond.”
The Lib Dems called on Johnson to pay back Downing Street cleaners out of his own pocket. Chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “Johnson’s apology just doesn’t cut it. If he was truly sorry, we would take personal responsibility and offer the cleaners a pay rise out of his own pocket.”
Telegraph journalist Christopher Hope said Gray’s description of “entitled staff boozing away” while dismissing concerns of cleaners and security staff was “incredibly damaging”.
Botanist James Wong added: “Just gotta say, whatever your point of view, people who treat cleaners and security staff disrespectfully are the absolute worst.”
Actress Sian Reese-Williams added: “The bit about the cleaners and security staff is so gross. It tells us everything we need to know.” Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, added: “You can tell a lot about a person and their upbringing by how they treat others especially cleaners, security guards, supermarket staff and waiters/waitresses.”
Former Conservative chancellor George Osborne also came to their defence, saying: “One of the things I remember most about living in Downing Street was how amazingly friendly, generous and kind the team who keep the place going are – the cleaners, custodians, front of house and the police.
“Working all hours, not very well-paid but always there for us.”
On Friday cleaners gathered outside Downing Street to protest against the treatment of low-paid staff.
The event was organised by United Voices of the World (UVW), a union which represents cleaners and security guards in government buildings.
Petros Elia, general secretary, said they were not in the least bit surprised by the revelations in the Gray report.
“We have many members who work as cleaners and security guards and these workers face disrespect on a daily basis in offices across London, not just in Downing Street,” he added.
The group has also worked to highlight the death of Emanuel Gomes, a father who was an outsourced cleaner in the Ministry of Justice and died in April 2020 after working for five days with suspected Covid symptoms.
Jim Melvin, chairman of the industry voice the British Cleaning Council, said cleaners had been treated with “arrogance” and “disrespect”.
He added: “It is absolutely appalling and upsetting to hear that they were being treated with such contempt by people who sit within government or the civil service and who frankly should know better.” The BCC is formally requesting a meeting with government to discuss what has been done.
The Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union said they were “deeply concerned” and highlighted the work of cleaners who were “on the front line” during the pandemic.
However, they said they were “encouraged” that steps had been taken to introduce more accessible means for cleaners and security staff to raise concerns.
Meanwhile, the Cleaners Union said they were “appalled” that underpaid and overworked staff were “literally left to clean up the mess at 10 Downing Street”.
In a statement, they called for a “drastic cultural shift” in the way cleaners are treated and added: “They are not only left to clean up the dirt but are treated as such. This is unacceptable.”
No.10 has been approached for comment. In a previous statement, a spokesman said: “The prime minister has been appalled by the findings in Sue Gray’s report around behaviour towards treatment of security and cleaning staff.
“He has personally apologised to these dedicated members of staff, expects anyone who behaved in that way to apologise, and we are committed to addressing the full findings and recommendations in the report.”