Photos appear to show Boris Johnson toasting a colleague during lockdown party

‘Daggers drawn’: Images emerged amid reports of an increasingly toxic atmosphere within government

Andrew Woodcock,Anna Isaac
Monday 23 May 2022 21:17
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Partygate: Boris Johnson's repeated denials and excuses

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been thrust deeper into peril with the publication of photographs showing him drinking wine with Downing Street staff in the depths of England’s second Covid lockdown in 2020.

The pictures, obtained by ITV News as Westminster awaits the imminent publication of Sue Gray’s report into the Partygate scandal, throw doubt on the prime minister’s claim to the House of Commons that no party took place and no rules were broken in No 10.

And they raise the question of why the Metropolitan Police did not fine the PM for taking part in the leaving party for former director of communications Lee Cain on 13 November 2020, when others were penalised for attending.

The images emerged amid growing chaos and tension at the heart of government over the Partygate scandal, with insiders describing the atmosphere in No 10 and the Cabinet Office as “daggers drawn”.

One Tory MP told The Independent that the images made clear that Mr Johnson had lied to parliament, making it likely that more letters of no confidence in his leadership would be written in the coming days.

Another senior Conservative said that their appearance as the Partygate scandal was coming to a head had “shifted it into a different gear”.

Sir Roger Gale, the first Tory MP to declare no confidence in the PM in December last year, described the pictures – which show the PM apparently toasting Mr Cain with a plastic cup of sparkling wine in a room littered with alcohol bottles – as “damning”.

And Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “These images will rightly make people across the country very angry. The prime minister must outline why he believes this behaviour was acceptable. To most, these pictures seem unjustifiable and wrong.”

The toxic mood has been fuelled by expectations that Ms Gray’s report will deliver a scathing verdict on leadership in No 10 and the Cabinet Office and reveal a drinking culture inside government.

Insiders told The Independent that tensions had reached a point on Monday where the mood in Downing Street was “daggers drawn”, amid fallout from a furious row between No 10 and the Gray team over a meeting between the senior civil servant and Mr Johnson.

Downing Street denied that the PM had used the meeting earlier this month to put pressure on Ms Gray to soft-pedal her findings.

One Tory MP said the images made clear the PM had lied to parliament

But the spokesperson admitted it had been instigated by No 10 – just hours after Treasury minister Simon Clarke insisted in a TV interview that the request to meet had come from Ms Gray.

A senior Whitehall official tasked with briefing the media on behalf of the inquiry was moved to other duties after No 10’s version of events was contradicted by the Gray team over the weekend.

And Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson was forced to deny that the PM felt Ms Gray was “playing politics” with her inquiry, after reports that his allies had been briefing against her.

Mr Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings claimed that relations were breaking down between feuding factions within No 10, with longer-serving staff who were present at the time of the parties in 2020 and 2021 fearing they would be made scapegoats by others who had arrived more recently.

“Some of those in key positions, now or very recently, have tried to blame other officials,” said Mr Cummings. “Those officials think some of those in key positions now have behaved appallingly, and are preparing to take action.”

Ms Gray’s report is expected to single out as many as 30 senior civil servants for criticism, as well as offering granular detail on the numbers of people crammed into the rooms in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in the adjoining 70 Whitehall complex.

Those under fire are expected to include the head of the civil service, cabinet secretary Simon Case, and his predecessor Mark Sedwill.

Speaking of the atmosphere within the Cabinet Office, one official told The Independent: “It’s another grim one. It’s daggers drawn.

“Some officials think that Case should go, that he should have refused to allow an internal investigation first and foremost. Others are already furious at the idea that he could take the fall for the neighbours.”

However, a different official with knowledge of Ms Gray’s report claimed that she would also note the broader roles of chief operating officers in No 10 and 70 Whitehall, adding: “It’s about who should have been noting the movements and actions of staff throughout.”

At least seven other people are visible with Mr Johnson in the photos, though their features have been pixelated to avoid identification. None are observing the two-metre social distancing rules required when meeting people outside the home during lockdown.

On a chair sits an official red box – used to carry ministers’ papers – and on the table next to the PM are two bottles of champagne or cava, four bottles of wine, and half a bottle of gin. Also visible are party cups, biscuits, crisps and other food.

The event took place just eight days after England went into a national lockdown, barring gatherings of people from more than one household except for essential work purposes. And it happened only a few weeks after Mr Johnson allegedly said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose fresh restrictions.

A spokesperson for the Gray inquiry would not be drawn on whether Ms Gray had seen the photos before completing her report.

But a No 10 spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Office and the Met Police have had access to all information relevant to their investigations, including photographs. The Met have concluded their investigation and Sue Gray will publish her report in the coming days, at which point the prime minister will address parliament in full.”

Asked in the House of Commons on 1 December 2021 if he could confirm whether a party had taken place on 13 November the previous year, Mr Johnson replied: “No, but I’m sure that, whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

A week later, on 8 December, the PM told the Commons: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party, and that no Covid rules were broken.” And at a Downing Street press conference later that day, he said: “All the evidence I can see is that people in this building have stayed within the rules.”

One Conservative MP, who has already submitted a no-confidence letter, told The Independent: “These photos show that Boris misled parliament. It’s hard to claim this was necessary for work purposes when there are seven bottles of booze open.

“It definitely increases the likelihood that MPs who told their constituents that they were waiting for the Sue Gray report will now send off their letters.”

The MP said that a number of Tories had taken back the letters they had sent to 1922 Committee chair Sir Graham Brady, after last week’s conclusion of the police inquiry into Partygate appeared to “let the PM off the hook”.

But they added: “There is still a lot of unhappiness out there, and these photos will bring it back to the surface. People are really starting to worry about the electoral impact, especially with two by-elections coming up.”

Prominent backbencher Steve Baker, who has previously said “the gig is up” for Mr Johnson, declined to comment on the photos, but tweeted a lockdown poster depicting a seriously ill Covid patient with the words: “Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said there was now “no doubt” that the PM knew that lockdown rules had been broken in No 10, or that he had lied in parliament about it.

“While the British public were making huge sacrifices, Boris Johnson was breaking the law,” said Ms Rayner. “Boris Johnson said repeatedly that he knew nothing about law-breaking – there’s no doubt now, he lied.”

The Liberal Democrats called on the Independent Office for Police Conduct to open an inquiry into the decision of the Met’s Operation Hillman not to issue Mr Johnson with a fixed penalty notice in relation to the 13 November event.

The party’s deputy leader, Daisy Cooper, said: “If anyone else had been pictured at a party like this during lockdown, surely this would have been enough evidence for them to be fined.”

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