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Partygate and Beergate - How to Minimise the Impact of an Investigation

Natalie McEvoy

Those who bear responsibility for causing others to materially restrict their behaviour must be beyond reproach. Is it possible to recover from allegations that suggest hypocrisy?

“Partygate” and “Beergate”, two mirrored investigations affecting the UK’s biggest political parties, exemplify the problems that can be caused by failing to follow the most basic crisis avoidance strategies. So too do they show how a primary source of reputation can be made worse by secondary problems of handling the issue badly.

Boris Johnson and Partygate came first with the release of photographs and denials by the Prime Minister that eventually led to an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray after which a police investigation and fines for Boris Johnson, Carrie Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak for breaches of Covid regulations. At the time of writing, more than 100 referrals for Fixed Penalty Notices for breaches of COVID-19 regulations by officials in Downing Street have been made by the Metropolitan Police.

As the public clamour for action against those at the parties rose, then re-emerged Beergate and Sir Keir Starmer. The issue was originally investigated by the police in relation to drinks and a meal he shared with colleagues during an election campaign, with the conclusion that an offence had not been established. Following weeks of media clamour the police re-opened their investigation on the basis that new evidence had been presented to them.

It is clear in relation to both investigations that the decision to formally investigate followed a combination of sustained media and public pressure and the voluntary provision to the police of corroborating evidence. The emergence variously of witnesses, emails and photographs caused concessions in the original responses to be forced from Johnson and Starmer, whose weakened defences left them vulnerable to formal police action. Where they differ though is the appearance that for Johnson his issues stem from the primary flaw of not following the law, whereas in Starmer’s case his issues seem far more driven by a failure to handle the allegations made competently.

Becoming the subject of an active police investigation is a nightmare reputational scenario, only surpassed by a finding of guilt. True not just for these particular leaders but for the reputation and public perception of leaders of all colours. These examples have reinforced what those of us working in crisis prevention have long recommended; you create risk if you are not complying with the letter and spirit of the rules you are supposed to follow, and you make matters far worse if you handle your response to questions badly.

Far higher standards are expected of corporates and their individual figurehead leaders than used to be the case. Not only is their integrity expected and demanded by employees, consumers, stakeholders and competitors, but also the integrity of those they associate with, whose standards they vicariously authorise by doing business together. As a minimum, compliance standards must be high and any internal investigation must have teeth, mindful of the fact that the next stage could be litigation or regulatory enforcement.

Far higher standards are expected of corporates and their individual figurehead leaders than used to be the case. Not only is their integrity expected and demanded by employees, consumers, stakeholders and competitors, but also the integrity of those they associate with, whose standards they vicariously authorise by doing business together. As a minimum, compliance standards must be high and any internal investigation must have teeth, mindful of the fact that the next stage could be litigation or regulatory enforcement.

What not to do

The Partygate controversy was notable for the public fury it provoked. It should come as no surprise that breaking rules you created and imposed upon others is bound to attract greater scrutiny and debate, and greater pressure upon those authorities who have the power to impose a penalty. Hypocrisy had criminal consequences. Indeed it was the unstoppable momentum of public outrage at the perceived hypocrisy of behaviour here that rendered the police investigations unavoidable.

The resuscitation of allegations about Keir’s beer in its aftermath seemed more than a little contrived. That was soon lost by the abysmal handling of media questions by the Labour leader and his team. They allowed what should have been an easily manageable non-issue to snowball through weeks of partial answers, changes of stories and doubts about transparency to the point that authorities felt compelled to investigate again.

People generally expect that where sacrifice has been demanded of the public, the rule-makers themselves should be whiter than white. While this seems a unique set of circumstances, the increased volume of the public voice – and increased confidence to use it – holds all in the public arena to account. We can already see that energy companies may store up the same vitriol, should they – in time – overly recompense figurehead staff or trumpet profits after a year of asking the public to tighten their purse strings.

Those causing the public to materially restrict their behaviour have, in return, to be beyond reproach.

Doing it right

A truly open and accessible compliance and whistleblowing process may have markedly altered the outcome in these two case studies. The full detail of the allegations and evidence would have been front-loaded, better informing Johnson and Starmers’ responses and potentially avoiding the extra reputational damage which is caused by an accused amending their responses over time. In the Partygate example, the police investigation - which was opened only after intense public pressure - may even have been avoided. To this end, protect your data and cyber security, ensure you have the procedures in place to reduce the likelihood of a leak of documentation into the public domain and incentivise employees to raise concerns within their line of management to be handled dispassionately. Seek assistance to help control the publication of allegations ahead of time and to limit the amount of information in the public domain. When you are ready to make a public statement, do so based upon the full picture, not the snapshot in the public domain, even if this limits what you can say. Adding further particulars over time is a less damaging strategy reputationally than having to backtrack.

Likewise, properly evaluating – and not underestimating - the scale of the threat may have helped avoid the police investigations. Ensure that the pressure to respond quickly and to “say the right thing” does not trump adequate and honest due diligence. This can absolutely be transposed into a corporate context, where commercial and operational pressures can be intense and unyielding, but in the face of which policies and procedures around standards of business partners must not be compromised.

Adequately resourcing your compliance staff and empowering them to take decisions and raise their voice in a timely fashion will be a safeguard in the longer term. This is partly why the overall culture within the Houses of Parliament is also under the spotlight; an open culture is your best insurance policy.

Nurture an environment which seeks to avoid the main reputational hurdles in the first place, staying on top of issues raised, communicating clearly to your staff and ensuring they feel engaged and listened to. Transparent decision-making and accountable leadership can build employee solidarity quickly. Consider which reputational vulnerabilities are bespoke to your context. How easily could someone be drawn into a bribe or go unaware of an environmental breach within the supply chain, for example?

Reducing the risk of investigation begins with creating a compliant environment with genuinely proactive procedures which drive best practice and are known to the key decision makers who act as role models. Leaders need to be aware that there is increased scrutiny by authorities of the tone set by them which filters down, so take the temperature for what the more junior employees would consider their leaders would find acceptable. Consider too whether any revision to best practice is needed in light of the increased adoption of remote working as well as whether the political circumstances bring to bear any national or international impact on the expectations of your business.

Now Johnson and Starmer are caught up in the investigatory quagmire, it is all they can do to reassure the public, retain staff and donors and resolve issues so far as possible to secure their future prospects. Although their responses have differed, with Johnson firmly staying in post and Starmer volunteering to resign if found guilty, these are elected representatives. They can only delay, not avoid, the moment when the public allows or disallows them the privilege of rebuilding.

Join us on 26 May at 2pm via Zoom for our next webinar exploring how how media allegations can turn into regulatory headaches.