Partygate: How did Boris Johnson react to being fined for breaking Covid laws?

PM escapes without second fine as Metropolitan Police concludes investigation

Amy Gibbons,Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 25 May 2022 10:46
Sue Gray hands Boris Johnson a version of her partygate inquiry

The Metropolitan Police has announced that it has completed its investigation into the Downing Street “Partygate” scandal over rule-breaking during the Covid-19lockdown, handing out 126 fines in total over eight events held behind closed doors in Westminster.

Boris Johnson was among those who received a fixed-penalty notice from the Met over his part in a string of parties that took place in Downing Street during England’s first lockdown in May, November and December 2020 and April 2021.

Having initially told Parliament in December that he was “sickened” at the prospect of No 10 staff ignoring social restrictions, the prime minister was subsequently forced to admit to the House of Commons that he himself attended at least one such event as more and more stories continue to play out in the newspapers about further illicit gatherings that reputedly took place behind closed doors while the British public obeyed tough restrictions.

Responding to the receipt of his fine, alongside chancellor Rishi Sunak and his wife Carrie Johnson, the PM said: “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.”

He said he understood “the anger that many will feel that I myself fell short when it came to observing the very rules which the government I lead had introduced to protect the public”.

But he brushed off calls for his resignation from Labour, some of his own backbenchers and campaign groups for the bereaved, 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.”

He subsequently faced intense calls to step down as the first serving PM to be found to have broken the law and the poster boy for the “one rule for them, another for us” culture apparently abiding at the heart of his administration.

However, the scandal was blown from the headlines by the outbreak of the Ukraine war in the wake of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the affair in late January.

In what proved to be a 12-page “update” on Partygate only, Ms Gray 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 life at No 10 under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the Whitehall mandarin 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.”

Addressing the Commons on Monday 31 January, the PM responded to the report’s publication by saying 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’.”

Unless the long-awaited full version of Ms Gray’s report – which could now appear before the end of May – has more to reveal about the controversy, that appears to be the end of it, with the cost of living crisis coming to dominate the public’s thoughts and the news agenda instead.

Here is what Mr Johnson said in response to the specific events alleged to have taken place in the Partygate saga.

-15 May 2020: Garden party at Downing Street (cheese and wine) 

In December 2021, a photo emerged showing Boris and Carrie Johnson, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, sitting around a table in the No 10 garden during the first national lockdown.

Mr Johnson said in an interview on 20 December 2021: “Those were meetings of people at work. This is where I live and it’s where I work. Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.”

- 20 May 2020: Garden party at Downing Street (BYOB)

ITV reported a leaked email from Mr Reynolds to more than 100 Downing Street employees asking them to “bring your own booze” for an evening gathering.

Multiple reports suggested the PM attended the event with his wife.

Asked if he and Ms Johnson had attended the party in question, Mr Johnson said on 10 January: “All that, as you know, is the subject of a proper investigation by Sue Gray.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions two days later, he confirmed that he had taken part in 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.” His remarks inspired ridicule from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and several calls to “do the decent thing” and resign.

During a hospital visit on Tuesday 18 January, the PM caused more mirth when he told Sky News: “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.”

Having apparently forgotten his own responsibility for setting those rules, he said of Ms Gray: “We’ll have to see what she says. And I think that she should be given the space to get on and conclude her inquiry and I would urge everybody who has knowledge of this and… memories of this to tell her what they know.”

At the following week’s PMQs, Mr Johnson appeared to lose patience with his opposite number for dwelling on the issue, remarking: “It is for the inquiry to come forward with an explanation of what happened.”

He accused Sir Keir of “continuing to ask a series of questions which he knows will be answered fully by the inquiry” adding: “He is wasting this House’s time – he is wasting the people’s time.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds outside Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

-13 November 2020: Leaving party for senior aide and Johnsons’ flat party

According to reports, Mr Johnson gave a leaving speech for Lee Cain, his departing director of communications and close ally of Mr Cummings.

There were also allegations that the PM’s then-fiancee hosted parties in their flat, with one such event said to have taken place on 13 November, the night Mr Cummings departed No 10.

Mr Johnson was asked in the Commons on 8 December 2021: “Will the prime minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?”

He replied: “No, but I’m sure that whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

- 15 December 2020: Downing Street quiz

The Sunday Mirror published an image in December 2021 showing the PM flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in No 10 the previous year.

Downing Street admitted Mr Johnson “briefly” attended the quiz after photographic evidence emerged, but insisted it was a virtual event.

In an interview on 13 December 2021, the PM said: “I can tell you that I certainly broke no rules – the whole thing will be looked into by the cabinet secretary, and what I’m focused on, frankly, is the vaccine rollout.”

Mr Johnson apologised over the impression given ‘that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

- 18 December 2020: Christmas party at Downing Street

According to reports that first emerged at the end of November 2021, officials and advisers made speeches, enjoyed a cheese board, drank together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts – although the PM is not thought to have attended.

Mr Johnson said in an interview on 7 December 2021: “I have satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.”

He said in the Commons on 8 December 2021: “I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken. That is what I have been repeatedly assured.

“But I have asked the cabinet secretary to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible. It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”

The PM also said in the Commons on 8 December 2021: “I apologise for the impression that has been given that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously. I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.”

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