Downing Street Christmas parties: What happened and what are the accusations?

What is Simon Case investigating and what other claims have been made?

Andy Gregory
Sunday 12 December 2021 11:42 GMT
Investigation launched into alleged lockdown parties held by U.K. government officials

Allegations of Christmas parties in the heart of government while millions abided by coronavirus restrictions have sparked fury across the country – prompting bookmakers to increase their odds on whether Boris Johnson could be forced out of Downing Street in the new year.

The first hints of a potential scandal arrived at the advent of December, on the front page of the Daily Mirror, with reports of two parties in No 10 in the run-up to Christmas last year.

After a week of fresh allegations and government denials of rule-breaking, the prime minister eventually announced an investigation into the parties – his hand forced and his credibility bruised by the publication of a leaked recording showing Downing Street officials appearing to joke about one of the events days after it took place.

So what will cabinet secretary Simon Case be investigating, why has Labour declared the probe a “sham”, and what other allegations are not included in its scope?

While an embattled Mr Johnson initially said the investigation would focus only on the event on 18 December, it was announced the following day – after he faced questions from journalists on the matter while announcing fresh coronavirus restrictions – that the review would also look into two additional allegations.

Here are the various allegations:

27 November

Reports have claimed that a leaving do was held on this date, during the second lockdown, for Cleo Watson, a senior Downing Street aide and ally of former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

The prime minister gave a leaving speech to the packed, medium-sized room in No 10, where around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl”, according to Daily Mirror’s initial report.

But Mr Cummings, who had left No 10 a fortnight prior, claimed this event to be a “red herring”, saying that a staff member left their job, walked to the press office to say goodbye, at which point Mr Johnson “bumbled in and started babbling”, prompting an “embarrassed” crowd to disperse.

More from Mr Cummings in a moment.

10 December

The Department for Education (DfE) has admitted to holding a Christmas “gathering” for colleagues “already present” at its office in London while the capital was under Tier 2 restrictions banning people from meeting indoors in groups of more than six.

Following a report that Gavin Williamson had given a short speech, the department released a statement in the hours after the leaked footage from Downing Street, saying: “The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic.

“Drinks and snacks were brought by those attending and no outside guests or supporting staff were invited or present. While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”

18 December

Of all the alleged events, it is the response to this one in particular that has so far created the biggest headache for the prime minister, and which was the sole initial focus of Mr Case’s investigation.

According to the report splashed on the Mirror’s first front page on the scandal, between 40 and 50 attendees – not including the PM – drank wine and shared secret Santa gifts in No 10 on the day before Mr Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for millions, as London toiled under Tier 3 restrictions.

In a mock televised briefing four days later, then Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton joked with No 10 staff about the prospect of media questions on the gathering alleged to have taken place yards from Mr Johnson’s office, telling colleagues: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

Leaked recording shows Downing Street staff joking about Christmas party in No.10

The publication of leaked footage of this exchange by ITV News nearly a year later would serve to infuriate the public – and many in Mr Johnson’s own party – and to act as the catalyst for Mr Case’s investigation.

But while journalists had initially pointed out that the probe was far from an independent process, with Mr Case taking direction from Mr Johnson, a fresh allegation the following day served to further cast doubt over the investigation.

What other claims are there?

As ITV reported that Mr Johnson’s top communications adviser Jack Doyle had given out prizes at the party on 18 December last year, Labour decried the investigation as “a sham” and labelled Mr Johnson “unfit to lead”.

And there are other allegations not yet covered by the probe – including claims reported by The Times of a Christmas quiz for Downing Street officials in the Cabinet Office, which No 10 insists was “entirely virtual.”

Less specifically, both The Mirror and The Guardian have carried claims from sources that there were “loads of leaving parties” in No 10 during both the second and third lockdown, with the former quoting allegations from a source that there were “always parties” in the flat Mr Johnson shares with his wife Carrie. But no specific allegations have been made – save for one.

Mr Cummings, now a vocal critic of former ally Mr Johnson and his spouse, has insisted the focus of investigations should be on an alleged “actual party” in the couple’s grace-and-favour flat on 13 November, the day he himself walked out of Downing Street.

While Mr Johnson has denied a party took place, Mr Cummings – who sparked public fury with his own actions in Durham during the first national lockdown – alleged there had been “other flat parties” and suggested investigating the pair’s “bubble” policy.

Hours earlier, Mr Johnson is alleged to have given a leaving speech for Lee Cain, his departing director of communications.

Elsewhere, The Times reported that a “raucous” party allegedly attended by London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey took place on 14 December at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). The Tory Party admitted that an “unauthorised social gathering” had been uncovered and said “formal disciplinary action” had been taken against four CCHQ staff as a result.

The weekend after Mr Case’s investigation was announced, the Treasury admitted to holding “office drinks” after the autumn budget on 25 November last year, with around two dozen civil servants breaking out the booze at their desks while non-essential shops, leisure and entertainment venues were closed.

And, following a report in The Sunday Mirror, the Department for Work and Pensions said that staff working for Therese Coffey drank alcohol and ate takeaways “late into the evening” on a number of occasions as work continued past normal hours, as a source insisted there was “no party atmosphere going on”.

The paper also reported images of Mr Johnson conducting a Christmas quiz for Downing Street staff during lockdown, with many staff claimed to have taken part from No 10 despite it being hosted on a videoconferencing site.

Official guidance had reportedly stated at the time: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

Pressed on the pictures some 12 months later, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that no rules were broken because there was no alcohol present and the colleagues pictured flanking the prime minister and wearing tinsel “work with him”. He told the BBC: “I don’t think there’s a rule against recognising Christmas with tinsel or a hat.”

For his part, Mr Case is expected to pass on any findings of potential breaches of the law to the Metropolitan Police, which had said in response to the footage of Ms Stratton that it did not have enough evidence to launch an investigation.

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