Partygate: All the excuses and denials by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak for law-breaking events

The public statements – from ‘all guidance was followed’ to claims of ‘work event’

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 12 April 2022 20:32
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Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak fined over Downing Street lockdown parties

Prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak have been issued with fixed penalty notice fines by police investigating breaches of Covid law.

The Metropolitan Police has announced more than 50 fines for government staff members over law-breaking parties held at Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid pandemic.

Labour has called on both the PM and chancellor to go, saying they are “unfit to govern”. So what exactly have Mr Johnson, his officials and ministers said about social gatherings during the Partygate saga?

‘All guidance followed’ – Partygate story breaks

On 1 December, Boris Johnson told the Commons “all guidance was followed completely in No 10” after it emerged gatherings had been held during periods of strict Covid curbs the previous Christmas.

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused of holding “boozy parties”. Mr Johnson’s press secretary said she didn’t “recognise the reports” of Christmas parties in Downing Street.

‘No rules broken’ – Stratton video

Senior No 10 aide Allegra Stratton was captured laughing about a “cheese and wine” party in a leaked video which emerged on 7 December. She later resigned.

Mr Johnson apologised “unreservedly” for any offence caused the clip in the Commons, but also claimed: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”

Sunak’s Christmas party denial

Mr Sunak was asked by Labour MP Karl Turner on 7 December if “he or any of his officials or spads [special advisers] attended any of the Downing Street Christmas parties on 27 November or 18 December last year?”

The chancellor replied: “No, I did not attend any parties.”

It is understood that Mr Sunak – who has been hit with a fixed penalty (FPN) fine – only ever answered police questions in relation to the July 2020 birthday party for the PM at No 10.

Partygate: Clip resurfaces of Rishi Sunak denying he attended lockdown parties

‘Work event’

Mr Johnson was grilled again in the Commons on 12 January, admitting he did attend an event in the No 10 garden in May 2020 organised by his private secretary Martin Reynolds.

The PM said: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event, but with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside.” He also referred to the event as “people at work, talking about work”.

Mr Johnson also suggested that the event “could be said technically to fall within the guidance”, and said: “No 10 is a big department with a garden as an extension of the office”.

He later said: “Nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules, that the event in question was something – that we were going to do something that wasn’t a work event.”

‘Ambushed by cake’ at birthday party

In emerged in January that No 10 staff held a birthday party for Mr Johnson on 19 July 2020. No 10 said “staff gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room” and said the PM “was there for less than 10 minutes”.

Conor Burns, the Northern Ireland minister, said it was not a “premeditated” party – saying: “He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake.” The Tory MP later claimed he was told there was no cake.

It is the “ambushing by cake” party for which Mr Johnson has now been fined. No 10 confirmed his FPN was given for taking part “in a gathering of two or more people indoors” in the Cabinet Room on 19 July 2020.

‘Farewell speech’

Further reports emerged in January of two leaving drinks parties held at No 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021. No 10 said James Slack, former comms director, “gave a farewell speech” to thank staff at his leaving event.

Furious Labour MP condemns ‘spineless’ ministers for breaching Covid rules

‘Didn’t get drunk’ defence

Robert Peston reported in February that Mr Johnson’s legal defence would be that he went back to “proper” work immediately after the drinks events he attended under scrutiny by Met police detectives.

The ITV host also claimed that “if he can prove that he didn’t get drunk and incapacitated … his legal advisers seem to think there is a chance he can prove said events were simply part of his working day”.

Wearing of suits and ‘fluff’ defences

Among the other defences and excuses offered, cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was important to consider whether rules and regulations were “too hard on people”.

Rees-Mogg also dismissed concerns over parties as “fluff” and “fundamentally trivial” earlier this month, given the scale of the Ukraine crisis.

Asked about a photo showing Downing Street staff having a drink on May 15 2020, deputy PM Dominic Raab said the fact people were in suits showed it was a business meeting.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said people should simply “move on” after the prime minister apologised for Partygate events.

Theresa May tells PM he either didn't understand Covid rules or thought he was exempt

‘Do the right thing’

Confirmation that No 10 and Whitehall staff broke Covid laws – specifically the Health Protection Regulations – has also raised the question of hypocrisy once again.

Matt Hancock, Nadine Dorries and other ministers attacked “selfish” people for not following the lockdown rules to stay at home during the first lockdown months of the pandemic in 2020.

It emerged earlier this year that Mr Johnson had written to a seven-year-old girl in March 2020 after she had cancelled her own birthday party because of Covid rules. “Josephine sets a great example to us all,” the PM tweeted at the time.

Announcing £800 fines for anyone attending house parties last January, home secretary Priti Patel condemned the “small minority that refuse to do the right thing … If you don’t follow rules then the police will enforce them”.

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