Top civil servant investigating Downing Street party claims ‘attended Christmas drinks’

Anna Isaac
Friday 17 December 2021 21:26
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<p>The prime minister Boris Johnson with the UK’s top civil servant, Simon Case</p>

The prime minister Boris Johnson with the UK’s top civil servant, Simon Case

Britain’s top civil servant – who is investigating claims parties were held at Downing Street – has been accused of attending an impromptu Christmas drinks himself last year in breach of Covid rules, The Independent has learnt.

Simon Case, who was asked by Boris Johnson to look into potential government gatherings at the end of 2020, is 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 in the waiting room outside in 70 Whitehall.

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

Today, Labour and the SNP questioned whether Mr Case was suitable to lead an investigation into Downing Street’s allegedly rule-breaching parties, in light of the revelations.

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 rejected claims of an organised gathering, saying in a statement: “These allegations are categorically untrue.”

At the time, 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, and in the waiting room of the cabinet secretary. 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 December 18, 2020. The prime minister announced last week he was putting Mr Case in charge of an inquiry into the claims, a probe that has since expanded to include other gatherings alleged to have taken place on November 27 and December 10.

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 said he had written to the prime minister about the allegations and questioned the integrity of the investigation.

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 two hundred years.

Earlier this week, Johnson suffering 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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