Downing Street parties: The tweets coming back to haunt Boris Johnson

Prime minister’s pandemic social media posts starkly at odds with secret party culture he is accused of presiding over behind the scenes at Downing Street

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 25 January 2022 16:48
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How has Boris Johnson responded to party claims so far?

Boris Johnson has been hit by allegations of yet another party said to have taken place at Downing Street while social restrictions were in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

With Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray currently compiling her report into a string of potentially rule-breaking social gatherings and due to file before the end of the week - and with the Metropolitan Police announcing an investigation - ITV News reported on Monday evening that a surprise 56th birthday party was held for Mr Johnson on 19 June 2020.

Led by his partner Carrie Johnson, the Cabinet Room bash is said to have featured up to 30 guests enjoying cake and picnic food from M&S at a time when indoor socialising was still banned under the strict conditions of the first national lockdown.

A No 10 spokesperson admitted that the gathering had taken place but said it was “untrue” that family friends of Mr Johnson were hosted upstairs in his flat later that evening.

What makes this latest instalment of the “Partygate” saga so particularly galling to many is that the prime minister had, on 21 March 2020, tweeted out an incredibly touching handwritten letter he had received from a seven-year-old girl named Josephine informing him that she had cancelled her own birthday party in order to support the national effort to keep out Covid-19 and comply with the rules.

Mr Johnson applauded Josephine for her “great example” in his response, which he tweeted out with the hashtag #BeLikeJosephine.

A penny for the thoughts of that justifiably embittered eight-year-old now.

As a cabal of equally disillusioned Conservative backbenchers await Ms Gray’s verdict and sharpen their feathered quills in anticipation of writing a few letters of their own to Sir Graham Brady, here’s a look at what else Mr Johnson had to say on social media at the height of party season.

May 2020

Two months into the pandemic, as the spring brought brighter weather and a little relief to a frightened world, it has subsequently emerged that the prime minister and his staff were sitting down to cheese and wine in the garden of 10 Downing Street and sending out invites to a “bring your own booze” party in apparent defiance of their own rules.

On 15 May, the Friday on which that first gathering took place, the PM was telling the British public via Twitter: “We can beat this virus together - but only if we all continue to #StayAlert and follow the rules on social distancing.”

Two days later, his emphasis was on the nation beating the virus “together” by which he meant complying with the rules as one.

On the date his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds was inviting 100 staffers out to enjoy the sunshine in secret, the prime minister was congratulating celebrated centenarian NHS fundraiser Captain Tom Moore on his knighthood.

Sir Tom, of course, another man who knew his way around a garden.

The morning after, perhaps with an unpleasant throbbing in his temple and a queasy stomach, the prime minister took part in the weekly clap for carers, otherwise apparently without a single qualm about the disparity between his private and public conduct.

November 2020

More parties were allegedly held later that year when the second wave of the virus struck, which coincided with the departures of several senior aides to Mr Johnson, notably Dominic Cummings (whose own lockdown-breaking jaunt to Barnard Castle in Durham had caused such fury), Lee Cain and Cleo Watson.

The PM is alleged to have given a farewell speech at Ms Watson’s leaving do on 27 November at which more drinks were reportedly served.

Just a day earlier, he had trailed the new three-tiered system of regional social restrictions incoming in December and warned the public in a video message: “If we ease off now, we risk losing control of this virus all over again.”

On the day itself, he was regaling us with an account of his visit to a UK Health Security Agency research laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire to inspect the production of rapid lateral flow tests, which subsequently became so integral to home diagnosis protocol.

Mr Johnson described the scientists’ work at the facility as “incredibly important” in the accompanying video before swiftly turning on his heel and returning to London to immediately undermine their efforts to keep the country safe.

December 2020

Despite a November national lockdown, coronavirus cases climbed in the weeks approaching Christmas, ultimately forcing the prime minister to dash the hopes of millions of families desperate to be reunited for the festive season by introducing a further round of tough measures to stop the spread.

None of which prevented him hailing the one-year anniversary of the election of his “people’s government” on 9 December, telling the House of Commons that his Cabinet was “delivering on its promises”.

Ms Gray is known to be investigating a “work-related” party that took part in Gavin Williamson’s Department of Education the very next day.

Four more festive bashes were allegedly held on the 14, 15, 16 and 18 – for, respectively, London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s campaign team at Conservative Party headquarters, for Downing Street pub quiz fanatics, for Grant Shapps’s Department of Transport staffers and, apparently, for Mr Johnson’s immediate team.

In the midst of which, the prime miniser was heralding Great British Bake Off stalwart Prue Leith for getting her first vaccine jab and declaring, with extraordinary audacity in hindsight: “This Christmas it is vital that everyone exercises the greatest possible personal responsibility. Think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others.”

More in that tone followed over the coming days as he and Ms Johnson posed for a photo op to encourage people to telephone vulnerable loved ones forced to spend Christmas alone, expressed commiserations to French president Emmanuel Macron after he tested positive for Covid and again emphasised “personal responsibility” in message regarding social distancing.

“If you are forming a Christmas Bubble, it’s vital that from today, you minimise contact with people from outside your household,” the prime minister tweeted on 18 December 2020. “Everyone must take personal responsibility to avoid passing the virus on to loved ones this Christmas.”

Astonishing in light of what has since been alleged about his own behaviour beforehand, during this precise period and subsequently.

April 2021

The final and most recent chapter of Partygate (that we know of) came in the shape of accusations that two celebrations took place on the evening of Friday 16 April 2021, when England was under Step 2 Covid restrictions that banned indoor mixing and  the evening before the Queen sat alone in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, to mourn her husband of 73 years Prince Philip at his socially-distanced funeral.

Witnesses claimed that “excessive alcohol” had been drunk, attendees had danced to music DJ’d by a special adviser, a swing set belonging to Mr Johnson’s infant son Wilf had been damaged when drunken revellers staggered out into the garden and, at one point, a staffer was allegedly dispatched to a local Co-op supermarket with a suitcase to be filled with bottles of wine.

On Twitter, however, the prime minister gravely reported his attendance at a graduation ceremony for officers at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, saying the late Duke of Edinburgh had “incarnated the finest traditions of the Royal Navy”.

“Our thoughts remain with HM The Queen,” he claimed.

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