Top civil servant steps down from No 10 parties inquiry after reports he attended lockdown-breaching drinks event

Probe handed over to another Whitehall mandarin after opposition parties said cabinet secretary’s involvement untenable

Anna Isaac,Andrew Woodcock
Friday 17 December 2021 20:34
Boris Johnson dodges calls to come clean on what he knew about No 10 Christmas parties

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has stepped down from his role heading the inquiry into alleged Christmas parties in Downing Street after reports that he attended a drinks event in breach of Covid rules.

The move comes as a further blow for Boris Johnson at the end of a week in which he has suffered a rebellion by almost 100 Tory MPs and seen one of the Conservatives’ safest seats fall to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election regarded by many within his party as a referendum on his own handling of a series of scandals.

The prime minister resisted demands for the inquiry to be handed over to an external investigator, instead appointing Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray to complete the probe. It was unclear how soon she will be able to issue a report.

The announcement that Mr Case was “recusing” himself from the inquiry came hours after The Independent published claims from Whitehall officials that the government’s most senior civil servant was present at an impromptu Christmas event at the Cabinet Office’s 70 Whitehall HQ last December.

The reports made his position at the head of the inquiry untenable, with demands from Labour and the Scottish National Party for his removal.

Mr Case was asked by Boris Johnson last week to look into reports of a Christmas party in 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020, after a video emerged of aides joking about the event. The investigation was later broadened to include other alleged events, including some apparently involving the prime minister himself.

Now he is himself alleged to have shared drinks with 15 to 20 staff in mid-December 2020, according to two Whitehall officials who attended the event.

The informal event, according to a joint investigation by The Independent and Politico, was said to have taken place at his office and an adjoining waiting room in 70 Whitehall.

A third official, who did not attend, said the event was discussed the following week and they were asked whether they were at the “waiting room drinks.”

A source close to the Cabinet Office said they could not rule out that drinks had been consumed at civil servants’ desks, but a spokesman initially rejected claims of an organised gathering, saying in a statement: “These allegations are categorically untrue.”

But by Friday evening, the department had admitted that a quiz event involving drinks had taken place.

“Staff in the cabinet secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on 17 December 2020,” said the Cabinet Office in a statement.

“A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual.

“The cabinet secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office. No outside guests or other staff were invited or present.

“This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending. He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving.”

Moments later, a No 10 spokesperson said: “To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence the cabinet secretary has recused himself for the remainder of the process.

“The work will be concluded by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. She will ascertain the facts and present her findings to the prime minister.”

At the time of the alleged Cabinet Office party, London was in Tier 2 restrictions, meaning people were not allowed to socialise indoors and were told to work from home where possible.

Several bottles of wine and Prosecco were poured in the office, the two officials present claim, as well as in the cabinet secretary’s waiting room. Case allegedly carried a glass through the group as he greeted staff who gathered for what one official characterised as “last-minute” drinks, including civil servants from other departments.

Case was described as “in and out” of the gathering, drinking with colleagues. Crisps were also served and there were Christmas decorations on the tables, one of those present claimed. The same official said it was “a fairly regular occurrence” for civil servants to drink at their desks during this time but claimed that the gathering in Case’s office was “a piss-up” including his team and members of other departments.

The Whitehall employees who spoke to The Independent and Politico questioned the suitability of Simon Case to lead the inquiry into Downing Street parties.

One said: “It would have been better for the civil service to bring in someone from the outside [to investigate] especially as other parties involve [special advisers] who are temporary civil servants.” Another said it was a “joke” that they were leading the inquiry.

Mr Johnson has faced sustained questions about staff Christmas parties since the Mirror reported that officials drank wine and exchanged gifts via a Secret Santa on 18 December 2020.

Mr Johnson has also apologized “unreservedly” for video footage published by ITV News that shows members of the prime minister’s staff joking about the alleged celebration. Allegra Stratton, Mr Johnson’s former spokeswoman, resigned over the video, saying she would “regret those words for the rest of my days.”

The prime minister said last week he had asked the cabinet secretary to “establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible.” Findings had been widely expected this week. Johnson pledged: “It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”

The Independent reported on Thursday that the prime minister joined officials who were allegedly enjoying drinks in Downing Street during the first coronavirus lockdown in May 2020.

Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, urged the cabinet secretary to “come clean about exactly what happened – anything less is a slap in the face to those who have already lost so much to this pandemic”.

He added: “The least the government can do for us now is tell the truth”, adding that claims staff at the investigating cabinet secretary’s office “were themselves breaking the rules makes many of us believe they won’t even have the decency to manage that”.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the claims concerning a Cabinet Office party put “into question” whether Mr Case could offer a “fair and independent judgement” in the investigation.

She added that there “is growing evidence of a culture” of rule breaking.

Ian Blackford, SNP leader in Westminster wrote to the prime minister about the allegations and questioned the integrity of the investigation.

Allegations against Mr Case had “fundamentally and fatally undermined” his inquiry and he should be suspended until they are cleared up, Mr Blackford said.

And Conservative MP Richard Holden told Times Radio: “I don’t think it can be the case that he’s investigating something when obviously, there are now questions about that now.”

The prime minister is experiencing one of his toughest weeks since becoming leader, and overnight saw his party lose a by-election in a seat the Tories have held for almost 200 years.

Earlier this week, Johnson suffered his biggest rebellion in the House of Commons to date over new Covid restrictions, with many insiders saying his credibility has been seriously dented.

Stories about Christmas parties keep coming, with the Mirror on Tuesday publishing fresh details of a Zoom quiz hosted by the prime minister, as well as an image of a separate party held in Conservative Campaign Headquarters by former London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, who has since apologised.

Case was made Britain’s top civil servant in September 2020 — the youngest person ever recruited to the role — after he helped shape the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

He was previously director general at the now-defunct Department for Exiting the EU, where he worked on Irish border negotiations under Theresa May, and has served as private secretary to the Duke of Cambridge, as well as advising David Cameron and directing strategy at intelligence agency GCHQ.

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