Boris Johnson once more finds himself trapped in a fight for his political life as public anger over a series of rule-breaking parties alleged to have taken place in Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown returns to the headlines.
The PM, his chancellor Rishi Sunak and his wife Carrie Johnson were among the latest tranche of government staff members handed fixed penalty notice fines by the Metropolitan Police for breaking their own rules to stage parties during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak have apologised and paid their fines, with Mr Johnson saying: “In all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules. Of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation.”
But he brushed off calls for his resignation, saying: “I believe it’s my job to get on and deliver for the people of this country. That’s what I’m going to do.”
However, as the first serving PM to be found to have broken the law, he has already come under intense pressure to resign from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, from Tory backbencher Nigel Mills and from campaign groups like Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
While Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves added their voices to the calls to quit on Wednesday morning and reports emerge that Mr Sunak was talked out of quitting, the PM’s defenders including transport secretary Grant Shapps and Lord Frost has insisted that he is “completely mortified” by developments and keen to make amends.
Leading backbench critics of Mr Johnson such as Sir Roger Gale and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross have, meanwhile, argued that it is “not the time” for Britain change leaders in light of the war raging in Ukraine.
The No 10 drinks parties held in the midst of England’s coronavirus lockdowns remain the subject of the Met’s ongoing investigation and Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray has still yet to deliver her full report into what went on behind closed doors.
Ms Gray did submit a 12-page “update” on “Partygate” in January, which was heavily-redacted at the request of the Met, in which the civil servant blasted “failures of leadership and judgement” in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, describing the behaviour of some personnel as “difficult to justify”.
In a scathing comment on the culture at No 10 under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the senior civil servant wrote: “Some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”
Her report also revealed that the PM’s birthday celebration was among a dozen gatherings being investigated by Scotland Yard, as was an alleged party in his private flat.
Addressing the House of Commons on 31 January after the report’s publication before an accrimonious gathering of MPs, the PM said he “accepts Sue Gray’s general findings in full” and “above all her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now”.
He said he was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”.
“I get it, and I will fix it,” he added. “I want to say to the people of this country I know what the issue is. It is whether this government can be trusted to deliver, and I say ‘yes we can be trusted to deliver’.”
Before Christmas, Mr Johnson – who won a landslide victory in the December 2019 general election just prior to the onset of the pandemic – faced intense pressure over what became known as Partygate, a series of allegations concerning a string of social events that appear to have taken place over the course of 2020 in contempt for the rules in place at the time.
These included leaving do’s for seniors aides Lee Cain (13 November) and Cleo Watson (27 November) and a series of departmental Christmas parties the following month, including one at which former Conservative London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was pictured (14 December) and the virtual festive quiz in which the PM himself took part via Zoom (15 December).
When a video emerged showing the PM’s staff laughing and joking about having hosted a secret Christmas party during the 2020 winter lockdown, a scandal that prompted the tearful resignation of his spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, Mr Johnson said he he was “sickened” at the prospect of Downing Street employees ignoring social restrictions.
But early in the New Year, Mr Johnson found himself sidestepping questions about whether he personally attended an event on 20 May.
ITV News had reported that the PM’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had invited over 100 people by email to a “bring your own booze” bash in the grounds of his boss’s Westminster residence that day “to make the most of the lovely weather”.
At the time of the alleged gathering, strict controls on social mixing were in place, prohibiting households from intermingling, schools were shut to most pupils and pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, sports stadia, cinemas and theatres were all closed.
So strict were the rules at the time that police prosecuted people for having parties in their own homes, erected random checkpoints in some areas and, in Derbyshire, used drones to monitor beauty spots in the interest of shutting down illicit picnics.
Police forces in England and Wales issued 14,244 fines for breaches of lockdown laws between 27 March and 11 May 2020, according to figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, also breaking up political demonstrations and social meet-ups in open areas like Hyde Park in central London in the interest of stopping the spread of the virus.
An hour before the gathering in question is understood to have taken place, Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden had told members of the public via a live news conference about the Covid-19 outbreak: “You can meet one person outside your household in an outdoor, public place, provided that you stay two metres apart.”
People would not be allowed to meet outside in groups of six until 1 June.
Nevertheless, Mr Johnson and his then-partner (now wife) were among 30-40 people alleged to have attended the garden party in blithe indifference to the hardships the electorate were enduring, having responded to Mr Reynolds’ cheery invite email.
A source told The Independent the PM had indeed “hung out” with staff for at least an hour as they knocked back drinks.
Not all recipients were so keen to attend, however, with one staff member responding “Is this for real?” Another, according to the BBC, texted: “Um. Why is Martin [Reynolds] encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?”
The bash was scheduled just five days after another cheese-and-wine social reportedly took place in the same venue, an event that was also part of Ms Gray’s investigation (she was appointed replaced Cabinet secretary Simon Case after he recused himself from the probe after it was revealed he had known about a Christmas quiz held within his own department).
A source also told The Independent there were “more parties” that would come to light if Ms Gray “gets the info she ought to get”.
However, they added that it was “deeply wrong” that officials should “get the blame” when their actions were sanctioned by the PM.
“He was there for [the parties],” they said. “He encouraged people to drink and drank himself. And it was a clear untruth for No 10 to suggest that there was nothing that could be described as [a party]. It was shocking that they even tried to claim that.”
These events, both indoors and outdoors at No 10, took place on several occasions and were “most definitely not work meetings”, they added.
Which is interesting because when Mr Johnson did finally address the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions on 12 January, he confirmed that he had attended the garden gathering for around 25 minutes with the intention of thanking his staff for their efforts during the pandemic while claiming, somewhat improbably: “I believed implicitly that it was a work event.”
He apologised, expressed empathy for the public fury in light of the personal sacrifices millions had made and implored his critics to await the outcome of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgement.
That cut little ice with Labour leader Sir Keir, who described the PM as a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road” and “without shame”, derided his mea culpa as “worthless” following “months of deceit and deception” and called on him to resign, the seething disdain in his voice drawing chuckles of laughter from across Parliament while members of Mr Johnson’s frontbench sat stoney-faced behind their Covid masks.
Subsequently, news of more parties has emerged to add to the total, including two separate events on 16 April 2021, the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral when the Queen sat alone in accordance with strict Covid rules as she bade farewell to her husband of 73 years.
Both events are said to have been leaving parties for staff working in the PM’s inner team, with wild tales told of “excessive alcohol” being drunk, attendees dancing to music DJ’d by a special adviser beyond midnight and a staffer being sent out to the local branch of Co-op to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.
As further details were leaked to the newspapers in dribs and drabs, Mr Johnson invited further exasperated ridicule when he told Sky News during a hospital visit on Tuesday 18 January: “I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules… Nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that.”
After news of a sixteenth and final party, the aforementioned gathering to celebrate Mr Johnson’s birthday, emerged, the Met announced its investigation, prompting the delay of Ms Gray’s report as Scotland Yard requested that sensitive details pertaining to its own areas of inquiry be removed.
We now know that the Met has over 300 photographs and 500 statements collected by the civil servant in its possession.
This serialised scandal – following on from Tory sleaze allegations, questions over the awarding of lucrative Covid contracts and inconsistencies in accounts of how the cost of the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s own flat was met – has continued to garner popular derision, prompting ridicule from comedians and TV personalities and criticism from the opposition, a mood that was only briefly interrupted by concern over the Omicron surge and the arrival of Christmas.
When Sir Keir was sidelined in isolation with Covid, his deputy Angela Rayner said the Partygate revelations were “despicable” and that Mr Johnson had “consistently shown that he has no regard for the rules he puts in place for the rest of us”.
“At the time this party took place, key workers on the front line were working around the clock to keep us all safe, people suffered loneliness and loss in unimaginably tough circumstances, and for the majority of the country our freedom was limited to a daily walk,” she added.
Mr Johnson’s office has since been accused of “hiding behind inquiries” for its pains, repeatedly declining to answer questions and telling critics to wait first for Ms Gray’s inquiry to conclude and now the Met’s.
Many will be understandably outraged by the latest developments, particularly given the brazen contradictions between Mr Johnson’s apparent behaviour and what he had to say at the time.
In another Downing Street press conference on the pandemic on 25 May 2020, just five days after the “bring your own booze” party, the PM answered a question from a member of the public on live TV by saying: “Feel free to speak to people to yourself if you feel that they are not obeying the rules. But the police will step in if necessary and encourage people to obey the law.”
Mr Johnson does not appear to be ready to step down of his own volition so, unless his own backbenchers do submit the long-threatened letters of no-confidence to Sir Graham Brady’s 1922 Committee in sufficient numbers, the advent of the war in Ukraine and the spectre of local elections on 5 May might just be enough to save his bacon once again.
A new YouGov poll has concluded that 57 per cent of the British public believes that he and Mr Sunak should resign, should the PM need any additional food for thought on the subject.
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