Westminster lockdown parties controversy

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Downing Street, the location of some of the social gatherings, pictured in 2019, the Christmas before the pandemic

Social gatherings of United Kingdom government and Conservative Party staff in Westminster took place during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when there were public health restrictions on such gatherings in the country. Whilst several lockdowns in the country were in place, reported gatherings occurred at 10 Downing Street and other government buildings during the 2020 Christmas season and in April 2021, and in the garden of 10 Downing Street in May 2020. Starting in December 2021, these attracted substantial media attention, public debate, and controversy. British press use the term "Partygate" when referring to the controversy.

The Daily Mirror was first to report allegations in December 2021 that some 10 Downing Street staff had held gatherings in November and December 2020, after their planned Christmas party was cancelled due to the COVID-19 "tier" regulations in place at the time. Prime Minister Boris Johnson denied that any rules were broken, and a spokesperson denied that a party occurred. A week later, video of a practice press conference held in 10 Downing Street was leaked to and broadcast by ITV News in which joking comments suggested a party had taken place. Allegra Stratton, then Downing Street press secretary, featured in the video, and resigned her subsequent Government position after the video surfaced. Johnson said that he understood from senior staff that a party had not taken place, and that an investigation would be undertaken by the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case into whether any COVID-19 restrictions were broken at that or other staff events. Case stepped back from the inquiry on 17 December, amid reports that his own office had also held a party in December 2020, and responsibility for the inquiry was handed to Sue Gray.

Shaun Bailey resigned from a number of his positions, including chair of the London Assembly's Police and Crime Committee, after admitting to a party on 14 December 2020 with Conservative Party staff. A gathering on 10 December 2020 at the Department for Education will also be part of the investigation.

In January 2022, reports emerged that there were around 30 in one account, or and 40 in another, attendees at a social gathering with drinks, which took place on 20 May 2020 in the garden of 10 Downing Street during the first national lockdown. Johnson said that he attended and apologised for doing so. Downing Street apologised to Queen Elizabeth II for two further gatherings that took place on 16 April 2021, on the day before Prince Philip's funeral, during a third lockdown across England.

Public disquiet over how government staff and others in Westminster were perceived to have been breaking restrictions led to a decline in public support for Boris Johnson, the government and the Conservative Party, and is thought to have contributed to the party's loss of the 2021 North Shropshire by-election. In January 2022, a number of Conservative and opposition politicians called for Johnson's resignation.

Background[edit]

COVID-19 lockdowns in the United Kingdom[edit]

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, a UK-wide lockdown began on 23 March 2020, made under a new statutory instrument. This was an explicit stay-at-home order that prohibited all non-essential travel and social gatherings.[1] Some rules were incrementally relaxed in the following months in England; starting from 13 May, "two people from separate households were permitted to meet outside in a public place, such as a park, provided they stayed 2 metres apart".[2]

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a press conference on 16 December 2020, when he announced London would be moved to "Tier 3" rules.[3]

With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a second national lockdown started in England on 5 November 2020. A regional tiered lockdown system replaced this on 2 December.[4] London was initially placed in "Tier 2", was moved to the highest level "Tier 3" on 16 December, and finally placed under a newly introduced stay-at-home order, "Tier 4", on 19 December. People socialising between households or outside of support bubbles was not allowed throughout this period.[5] Household mixing and socialising for Christmas itself was also restricted to a small number of households and only permitted on 25 December across much of the UK, and in London was cancelled altogether.[6]

On 5 January 2021, a third lockdown began across the whole of England. This was gradually lifted in a series of steps beginning 29 March, with social contact limited to groups of six from no more than two households, with social distancing, and only permitted outdoors, into April.[7][8]

Westminster[edit]

10 Downing Street is a government building in the City of Westminster, central London, used by some staff in the Cabinet Office. It also contains a personal flat designated for the Prime Minister, though Boris Johnson uses the larger flat in the adjoining 11 Downing Street.

In December 2021, an article in The Spectator argued that COVID-19 restrictions, that rely on the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, may not legally apply to 10 Downing Street as it is Crown Land,[9] while a second article argued against this, on the basis that relevant COVID-19 laws applied to individuals rather than land.[10] In January 2022, Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the House of Lords, asked the government to clarify the matter and Nicholas True, a Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, replied: "No 10 Downing Street is a Crown property. Regulations under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which relate to the activities of people, apply regardless of whether those activities took place on Crown property or not".[11][12]

Timeline of reporting[edit]

2021[edit]

Downing Street, the location of some social gatherings.

On 30 November 2021, the Daily Mirror reported allegations that some Downing Street staff had held multiple gatherings in November and December 2020,[13] after the official Christmas party was cancelled due to COVID-19 regulations in place. At the time of the alleged events, London was under COVID-19 tier 3 lockdown restrictions.[14] The restrictions prohibited indoor gatherings of more than six people, with exceptions for certain work-related activities.[4] The first event was said to have been a leaving party for an aide on 27 November and allegedly attended by Johnson. The second event was said to have been a Christmas party held on 18 December.[15] The official response to the report in the Daily Mirror was that "Covid rules have been followed at all times".[16] Johnson denied that any rules were broken, and a spokesperson denied that a party occurred.[17][18]

The following day, other media outlets reported further details of the alleged event on 18 December, with BBC News reporting it involved "drinks, nibbles, and games" and a source told The Financial Times that parties were vital for Downing Street staff to relieve stress. Downing Street responded by saying "We don't recognise these accounts". At Prime Minister's Questions, Johnson told the House of Commons, "All guidance was followed completely [in] Number 10".[19] On 3 December, Labour MP Barry Gardiner wrote to the Metropolitan Police asking them to investigate but they responded saying that they do not normally investigate "retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations". Vaccines minister Maggie Throup appeared on the BBC's Question Time and stated "all guidance was followed" and dismissed reports about the alleged party as "rumour and hearsay". On 5 December, the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told Andrew Marr that if a "formal party" had taken place "then of course it would be wrong" but that the reports were based on "unsubstantiated, anonymous claims" which is why Downing Street did not respond more directly.[16] Raab also stated "the police don't normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago", about which a Full Fact investigation concluded "Police often investigate alleged offences which took place years before. This is less clear cut in the context of breaches of Covid-19 regulations, which police say they do not routinely investigate retrospectively."[20] On 6 December, former government adviser Dominic Cummings alleged that unnamed journalists attended the reported party and that it was "very unwise for No 10 to lie" about the events.[21][16] The Prime Minister's spokesperson reiterated "There was not a party and Covid rules have been followed at all times" and when challenged about how this could be true responded "I don’t need to get into the positions we’ve taken. It is simply just a statement of fact".[16]

Allegra Stratton at a press event.
Then-Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton, who appeared in a leaked video that was part of the controversy, and subsequently resigned.

On 7 December 2021, ITV News released a video, in which Allegra Stratton and other Downing Street staff – during a mock press conference on 22 December 2020 – made joking references to a Christmas gathering in 10 Downing Street four days earlier on 18 December 2020.[22] The leaked 47-second clip[23] began with media advisor Ed Oldfield playing the role of a journalist and asking Stratton "I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?" In response, Stratton and other Downing Street staff joked about the "fictional party" being just "cheese and wine" and a "business meeting", with "no social distancing".[24] The Guardian reported that the video gave "the strong impression that a staff-based party took place on 18 December 2020 and that No 10 officials realised that they were likely to have broken rules".[24] BBC News reported that the event had "several dozen" attendees, and that "party games were played, food and drink were served, and the party went on past midnight".[14] The Times reported allegations that the party was organised via WhatsApp with staff requested to bring Secret Santa gifts.[25]

On 8 December, following the release of the video and in response to further requests for an investigation, the Metropolitan Police said that they had "received a significant amount of correspondence relating to allegations reported in the media that the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations were breached at gatherings at No 10 Downing Street in November and December 2020" and that "all this correspondence has been considered by detectives in detail, as well as footage published by ITV News". They concluded that the "correspondence and footage does not provide evidence of a breach of the Health Protection Regulations, but restates allegations made in the media. Based on the absence of evidence and in line with our policy not to investigate retrospective breaches of such regulations, the Met will not commence an investigation at this time".[26]

According to BBC News on 9 December, Jack Doyle, the deputy Downing Street Director of Communications at the time, was understood to have attended the event on 18 December, gave a speech, and handed out awards at the function.[27] On 10 December, the government's Chief Whip Mark Spencer said that the event had been a "meeting", rather than a social gathering.[28] The New York Times commented that, according to some, the government was not following the rules it had set for the general population.[29]

On 11 December 2021, reports emerged that two dozen HM Treasury staff gathered for drinks on 25 November to celebrate Chancellor Rishi Sunak's Autumn Spending Review.[30] On 12 December 2021 Downing Street confirmed that Johnson "briefly" took part in a virtual Christmas quiz held at the venue on 15 December 2020 after the Sunday Mirror published a picture of him participating via his computer in the event, in a room with two other people. Downing Street said he was there to thank staff for their work during the pandemic and that the event was a "virtual" one, while Johnson himself responded that he "certainly broke no rules".[31][32] The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also confirmed that staff working past normal employment hours drank alcohol and ate takeaway "late into the night" on a number of occasions during COVID restrictions after this was reported by the Sunday Mirror. A DWP spokesman said: "The team regularly worked late into the evening and on a number of occasions they ate takeaway food and drank some alcohol".[33]

Northern Ireland First Minister, Paul Givan, and his deputy Michelle O'Neill, alleged that the controversy had damaged the public health message in Northern Ireland.[34] On 12 December 2021, The Independent reported that senior police officers feared people would be less likely to comply with any new COVID restrictions because of the controversy. The newspaper said they had gathered anecdotal evidence of terse exchanges between police officers and members of the public in early December 2020.[35]

On 15 December 2021, former Conservative candidate as Mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, resigned from his position as chair of the London Assembly's Police and Crime Committee after photographs were published of him and over 20 members of staff at an event with drinks and a buffet held in the basement of Conservative Campaign Headquarters on 14 December 2020, when he was a mayoral candidate. Those attending included four aides seconded from the Conservative Central Office, who were subsequently disciplined. Cabinet member Grant Shapps stated that the event was "absolutely unacceptable", and not authorised by the Conservative Party.[36][37] The Metropolitan Police later said they would contact two people who were at the party over possible breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations.[38]

On 16 December 2021, The Guardian and The Independent, in a joint investigation, reported allegations that Johnson attended a party in Downing Street on 15 May 2020, during the first national lockdown. Downing Street issued a statement saying "On 15 May 2020 the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference. The prime minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening."[39] On 19 December The Guardian published a photograph of the event showing 19 people drinking wine and noted that "there are no laptops, files or notepads to take minutes on show". Johnson was shown sitting next to his then-fiancée, Carrie Symonds, who was holding their newborn son. Downing Street insisted that the photograph showed a work meeting.[40]

The Metropolitan Police referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), the police watchdog, on 17 December 2021, following a complaint by Green Party peer, Jenny Jones. Jones alleged that there was a "conflict of interest and a potential cover up" in relation to the police declining to investigate an allegation that a party took place in Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas 2020, and their role and involvement in the policing and security of the buildings.[41]

2022[edit]

In a blog post on 7 January 2022, Dominic Cummings argued that the photo from 15 May 2020 in the garden of 10 Downing Street did not show a party.[42] He described having a work meeting with Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, with Carrie Symonds subsequently joining them.[43][44][unreliable source?] Meanwhile, according to his account, various other groups of people were also meeting in the garden, and staff had been advised to meet outside in the garden where there was less risk of COVID-19 transmission.[42]

Cummings alleged that there was a "socially distanced drinks" gathering in the garden on 20 May 2020 that he and another special adviser cautioned against.[43][44] On 10 January 2022, ITV News showed a 20 May 2020 email sent on behalf of Reynolds to over one hundred 10 Downing Street staff, inviting them "to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening.... bring your own booze!" Various news organisations reported that around 30–40 people were present that evening, eating picnic food and drinking, including Johnson and Symonds.[45][46][47] Johnson initially declined to comment on whether he was present or not.[48] A spokesman for the Prime Minister said he still had confidence in Reynolds.[49] Campaigners, including the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, called for Reynolds to be dismissed.[50]

On 11 January, the Metropolitan Police said it was in contact with the government over "widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches" of COVID rules.[51] There was additional reporting of an alleged party in Downing Street on 18 December, with Reynolds said to have been present.[52] Shaun Bailey resigned as chair of a second London Assembly committee, the economy committee, in addition to his resignation from the police and crime committee in December.[53] Opposition party leaders Ed Davey[54] and Nicola Sturgeon called on Johnson to resign.[55] Tory donor, John Caudwell told Boris Johnson to, "sort it out or step aside", Caudwell added, "Each one of these new revelations gives greater force to the accusation that areas of the government think it's 'one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us'.[56] The Good Law Project announced that it had started legal proceedings against the Metropolitan Police over their refusal to investigate reports of the 18 December 2020 party.[57]

On 12 January, Johnson, speaking at Prime Minister's Questions, said that he had attended the gathering and apologised for doing so.[58] He said that he was present for about 25 minutes and that he thought it was an allowed work meeting. He said, "I should have recognised that even if it (the gathering) could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way."[59]

The leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, said in the House of Commons, "There we have it. After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road. His defence...that he didn't realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public. He's finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?" Other Labour MPs and MPs from other parties also called on Johnson to resign,[60] including some MPs from his own party, including Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross.[61] In response to his comments, the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to Ross as a "lightweight" person who has always opposed Johnson and called Alister Jack (the Scotland secretary, who supported Johnson) a "much more substantial and important figure".[62] Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was similarly dismissive, saying: "My instant response is he's in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London".[62] All 31 Conservative MSPs supported Ross's call for resignation.[63][64] Articles in New Statesman and The Guardian, among others, criticised the wording of Johnson's apology for being insufficient.[65][66]

On 13 January, it was reported that two separate parties were held in 10 Downing Street on 16 April 2021. These were leaving events for James Slack, Johnson's director of communications, and a photographer. The date was the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, when the UK was observing a period of national mourning, and England was in step two of its lockdown roadmap, with indoor mixing banned. Johnson was reported to be out of London at the time.[67][68][69] The photographer's party reportedly involved loud music, a DJ and a staff member sent to the Co-op store on the Strand to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.[70] The next day, Slack and Downing Street confirmed there was an event, with Slack apologising for what happened.[71] Number 10 apologised to Queen Elizabeth II for the two parties that were held.[72]

On 14 January, The Independent reported that Johnson had drawn up a plan, named "Operation Save Big Dog", in an attempt to retain his premiership. The plan included a list of officials who should resign over the parties controversy, a communications strategy for cabinet ministers, as well as "sounding out support" for leadership rivals from backbenchers.[73] The Daily Mirror reported that Downing Street staff had regular Friday evening events with wine, for which a dedicated fridge was bought, being delivered on 11 December 2020. What were called "Wine time Fridays" were purportedly scheduled into the diaries of about 50 staff from 4–7pm. Johnson was reported to visit some of these and to be aware of their existence.[74] 10 Downing Street did not deny the allegations.[75]

On 16 January 2022, in a column in The Times, Dominic Lawson said a former Downing Street official had told him of at least two people warning Johnson that the 20 May 2020 event should be cancelled and that Johnson said they were "overreacting".[76][77] Johnson's spokesperson said that the report was not accurate, although other journalists were reported to have corroborated it.[78] On 17 January, Cummings reiterated his claim that Johnson knew in advance about the party, that Cummings raised concerns about it and that Johnson said it could go ahead, and consequently that Johnson had lied to Parliament about what happened. Cumming said he would "swear under oath this is what happened". Sky News reported a second source confirmed Johnson had been warned in advance about the party.[79] BBC News Online reported that two other former Downing Street officials said "they remembered Mr Cummings telling them that day he had warned the prime minister not to allow the drinks to go ahead".[80]

Starmer accused Johnson of breaking the law. Starmer, a one time Director of Public Prosecutions said, "I think he broke the law. I think he's as good as admitted that he broke the law. (...) I think it's pretty obvious what's happened, this industrial-scale partying had been going on at Downing Street, not much of it is really denied, and I think that the public have made up their mind. I think the facts speak for themselves. I think the Prime Minister broke the law, I think he then lied about what had happened. (...) Once Sue Gray has come to her findings, she will set out all the facts, she is very well respected, I think that all of those should be passed to the police to look at."[81]

A photograph of Keir Starmer drinking from a bottle of beer in a constituency Labour Party office shortly before the Hartlepool by-election in May 2021 was republished by some media in January 2022. Starmer denied being in breach of the rules in place at that time, explaining he was working late with staff and they ate a takeaway together.[82] Starmer stated, "There is simply no comparison" with the culture in Downing Street, and added Conservatives who brought it up were trying "to take everyone into the gutter with them".[83]

On 17 January, the Daily Mirror reported that Johnson attended a leaving party for Steve Higham, his former defence advisor, shortly before Christmas 2020 while strict coronavirus restrictions applied in London. Johnson was reported to have attended "for a few minutes" and to have given a speech.[84][85]

On 18 January, the Guardian reported that Conservative rebel MPs had a plan to oust Johnson from office, named "Operation Rinka", after the dog that was shot in the Thorpe affair.[86]

Also on 18 January 2022, Johnson gave a lengthy pool interview to Beth Rigby. He repeatedly apologised and said of the 20 May 2020 event, "I'm saying categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules". Sky News reported that one Conservative MP described Johnson in the interview as "absolutely beaten"[87] and Rigby described him as looking "defeated".[88] iNews described the interview as "excruciating".[89]

When Simon Hattenstone asked Keir Starmer about Johnson claiming he did not know it was a party Starmer said further, "The cover-up isn't worse than the crime, but the cover-up compounds the crime. Johnson's now on his third defence. His first defence when we tackled him on this at the beginning of December was: 'I've been assured there were no parties,' and his second defence when the video came out was: 'I'm furious there have been these parties; I've only just found out.' And if the third defence is true, then obviously the first two are false – and that's a major problem for him."[90]

Events[edit]

It was initially alleged that at least seven parties that may have been in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions occurred in November–December 2020 overall.[91][92][91] Additional events from May 2020 to April 2021 were then reported. In addition to the specific dated events listed below, the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed staff drank alcohol and ate takeaways "on a number of occasions" while working late during the period of COVID-19 restrictions.[93] The Mirror has alleged that "wine time Fridays" were a regular occurrence at Downing Street throughout the period.[75]

First national lockdown[edit]

  • 15 May 2020: multiple people were present in the garden at 10 Downing Street, including Johnson, during the first lockdown;[39] The Guardian published a photograph showing Johnson, Carrie Symonds, and 17 staff members in the 10 Downing Street garden with cheese and wine;[94][40] a spokesperson for 10 Downing Street described the gathering as a work meeting.[93]
  • 20 May 2020: Johnson's PPS, Martin Reynolds, invited staff at 10 Downing Street to what the invitation described as "socially distanced drinks". Johnson acknowledged being present for about 25 minutes, but said he thought the event was an allowed work meeting. Carrie Symonds also reportedly attended. Dominic Cummings, then an adviser to the PM, claimed that he and others warned against the event and Cummings also said he did not attend. This event is covered by the Cabinet inquiry.[42][45][95]

Middle of 2020[edit]

  • September 2020: A photo was taken of Boris Johnson's then-fiancée, Carrie Symonds, embracing a friend at an engagement party. She admitted to breaching social distancing guidelines and apologised.[96]

Second lockdown in England[edit]

  • 13 November 2020: a source alleged to the BBC that staff had impromptu drinks at their desks to mark the leaving of Lee Cain, the Prime Minister's departing director of communications at 10 Downing Street, and that the gathering was over by 20:30.[93]
  • 13 November 2020: multiple sources, including Cummings,[97] alleged Downing Street staff joined a gathering with the Prime Minister's then-fiancée, Carrie, in their flat above 11 Downing Street; a spokesperson for Mrs Johnson denied there was any party.[93][98]
  • 25 November 2020: Treasury staff allegedly gather for drinks; The Times reported that around two dozen civil servants attended, but a Treasury spokesperson described an "impromptu" event with a "small number" of staff involved.[93]
  • 27 November 2020: sources alleged an informal leaving event for Cleo Watson, a 10 Downing Street aide, took place and that the Prime Minister gave a speech;[1] this event is covered by the Cabinet inquiry. Cummings has said no party happened then.[44][non-primary source needed]

London in Tier 2[edit]

  • December 2020 (exact date uncertain): Boris Johnson reportedly attended and spoke at a leaving party for his defence adviser Steve Higham.[84]
  • 10 December 2020: Christmas party at the Department for Education's café hosted by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson and attended by the Permanent Secretary, Susan Acland-Hood; a department spokesman said that "a gathering of colleagues who were already present at the office" had taken place.[99] A spokesperson confirmed that Williamson gave a speech and that "drinks and canapes" were served.[100] This event is covered by the Cabinet inquiry.
  • 14 December 2020: Christmas party held by Shaun Bailey for his campaign team; Bailey admitted the party took place and has resigned as chair of a London Assembly committee on policing, with disciplinary action taken against four Conservative Party employees.[37]
  • 15 December 2020: multiple sources told various news agencies that a Christmas quiz took place for 10 Downing Street staff; Johnson took part virtually;[1] a Downing Street spokesperson said the event was all held virtually, and other sources said teams were sitting together in a room.[93][98]

London in Tier 3[edit]

Poster outlining COVID-19 restrictions
Government poster describing "Tier 3" social distancing rules, that were in place in London between 16 and 19 December 2020.
  • 16 December 2020: Christmas party by staff working for Grant Shapps at the Department of Transport; Shapps, who was not present, apologised for what happened.[101][102]
  • 17 December 2020: Simon Case's team had a Christmas party at 5.30pm in room 103 of the Cabinet Office, at 70 Whitehall.[103][1][93]
  • 17 December 2020: Cabinet Office staff gathered with drinks to mark the departure of Kate Josephs, Director General of the COVID Taskforce.[104] Josephs apologised for the event, which is now covered by the Cabinet inquiry.[105] Paul Scriven, a former Leader of Sheffield City Council, called for Josephs's resignation from her current role as chief executive of Sheffield Council.[106]
  • 18 December 2020: Christmas gathering at 10 Downing Street; this event is covered by the Cabinet inquiry.[107]

Third lockdown in England[edit]

  • 16 April 2021: there were two leaving events (one for James Slack, Boris Johnson's director of communications; one for a personal photographer to Johnson) in different parts of Downing Street, which later merged into one, with about 30 people present. Johnson was not in London at the time.[69] Slack (now deputy editor of The Sun) apologised for the event on 14 January 2022.[108] Both parties took place on the evening before the funeral of Prince Philip on 17 April 2021, and featured alcohol and one of them featured loud music.[69][109] The Telegraph reported partying continued from 6pm until 1am.[110]

Inquiry[edit]

At Prime Minister's Questions on 8 December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised for the video of the mock press conference, describing himself as "furious" about it, but maintained that, as far as he knew from senior staff, a party had not taken place and declared that an investigation would be undertaken by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.[111][112] Three hours later, Stratton, who featured in the video, resigned from her position as a Government spokesperson for the COP26 summit.[113][114]

Sue Gray, the civil servant undertaking the inquiry

On 9 December, it was announced that the inquiry led by Simon Case would focus on three events, two at 10 Downing Street on 27 November and 18 December 2020, and one at the Department for Education on 10 December 2020.[107] Johnson is alleged to have attended the event on 27 November, which is under inquiry.[115]

On 17 December 2021, it was announced that Case would no longer lead the inquiry following reports that a party had been held in his own office on 17 December 2020. The inquiry is now to be concluded by senior civil servant Sue Gray.[116][117] Lord Barwell, a former Conservative MP and chief of staff for Theresa May when she was the prime minister, is reported by the BBC to have said "he could not think of a better person for the role". Two opposition politicians, Labour MP Chris Bryant and SNP MP Ian Blackford, called for the inquiry to be led by a person independent of the government and civil service.[117]

In January 2022, ITV reported that Gray's investigation would also cover the 15 May 2020 photo and Dominic Cummings' allegations of parties on 20 May and 13 November 2020.[118]

Alex Thomas, the civil service programme director at the Institute for Government told Channel 4, and it was reported in New Statesman, that Sue Gray, as a civil servant, is not independent of government.[119][120]

Gray had reportedly questioned Johnson, by 17 January, about events[121] and also Cummings.[122] Robert Peston reported that she was to talk to a senior official who would confirm that Johnson was warned that the 20 May event should not go ahead.[123] Gray has also had access to swipe card and other security data on people’s movements in and out of 10 Downing Street.[124]

Gray's report is expected in the week beginning 24 January 2022[125] and to be about 25 pages long.[124]

The opposition wanted all the evidence to be published after it came out that the Gray report would probably be just a brief summary of findings. Labour and the Liberal Democrats wanted all accompanying evidence (including emails and witness accounts) to be published together with the report's other findings.[126] The Guardian wrote, "The email is crucial, as Johnson insists he was not warned that the “bring your own booze” event might be against the rules, and that he was unaware it was a party when he spent about 25 minutes there speaking to staff, believed to number 30 to 40."[127]

Reactions[edit]

The British press started referring to the controversy over the alleged events as "Partygate".[128] Some commentators made comparisons between these possible social gatherings, and the lack of social contact when observing COVID restrictions when people were dying[129][130][131][132] or at funerals.[133][134] At Prime Minister's Questions on 8 December 2021, Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, raised the example of Prof Trish Greenhalgh being unable to visit her dying mother in December 2020.[135][136][137] The Conservative backbench MP Tracey Crouch said, "My constituents have every right to be angry. Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves."[138]

The reported gathering on 16 April 2021, on the day before the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was compared by opposition politicians and The Guardian to the social distancing rules that applied to the funeral attended by Queen Elizabeth II.[7][8] Professor Vernon Bogdanor said, "It shows that those in government feel entitled to break the rules which ordinary people have been observing".[139] The story became the subject of political satire by Ant and Dec on the ITV entertainment show I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! A clip of this on social media was seen 5 million times.[140]

The controversy was seen as one factor in the Conservatives' loss of a by-election in North Shropshire, held on 16 December 2021.[141] Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC's then political editor, wrote that, "Boris Johnson has been put on notice by his own side" and discussed a possible challenge to his leadership.[142]

There was debate as to whether public disquiet about the controversy might lead to the public being less willing to adhere to new restrictions brought in because of the Omicron variant of concern.[143] However, Steve Reicher argued in The BMJ that any effect was likely to be small and that it could lead some individuals to be more adherent.[144]

The Week,[145] the BBC[146] and The Daily Telegraph[147] all selected a photo of Allegra Stratton giving her resignation statement as a key image of 2021.

On 19 January 2022, in a statement to the London Stock Exchange, JD Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin accused Johnson of "hypocrisy", arguing that much of the controversy would have been avoided if Downing Street staff had been able to visit pubs, which at the time were closed due to lockdown restrictions.[148]

The campaign group Led By Donkeys produced a spoof video of Johnson being questioned about the controversy by characters from the TV drama Line of Duty. It was viewed 5 million times with a day of publication.[149][150]

Within the Conservative Party[edit]

On 12 January 2022, during Prime Minister's Questions, Keir Starmer called for the Prime Minister's resignation in his first question. Throughout the day, many senior figures of the Scottish Conservatives called for Johnson to resign, including leader Douglas Ross and former leaders Ruth Davidson and Jackson Carlaw.[151][152] The The Guardian reported that "nearly all" of the 31 Conservative MSPs supported Ross' call.[153] William Wragg, the Conservative Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, called for Johnson's resignation, calling his position "untenable".[154] On 13 January, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen in an article for The Daily Telegraph stated that he had submitted a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister calling for him to resign.[155] The Sutton Coldfield Conservative Association voted unanimously to pass a motion calling for the Prime Minister to stand down.[156] A poll of Conservative Party members conducted in early January 2022 by YouGov found that 38% felt that Johnson was doing a bad job as Prime Minister and 34% wanted him to resign. While these were both still minority positions, they were held by a much larger proportion of members than when YouGov had last polled Conservative members in the summer of 2020.[157]

On 15 January, former Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood told the BBC that Johnson had to "lead or step aside". MP Andrew Bridgen said: "I don't need to see what Sue Gray says to know that for me Boris Johnson has lost the moral authority to lead the country. If there's another emergency where he has to call on the public to make sacrifices, he doesn't have that authority. That makes his position in my book, as prime minister, completely untenable."[158] Former children's minister and MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, Tim Loughton called for Johnson to resign, saying that his position was "now untenable". In a post on social media, he said: "His resignation is the only way to bring this whole unfortunate episode to an end and I am working with colleagues to impress that view on Number 10. Obfuscation, prevarication and evasion have been the order of the day when clarity, honesty and contrition was what was needed and what the British people deserve."[159]

It was reported that as many as 30 Conservative MPs had signed letters to the 1922 Committee requesting a no confidence vote for Johnson.[160][161]

Johnson faced more anger from MPs as they arrived back at Westminster on 17 January, after dealing with negative responses from Conservative associations and constituents. Some reported they had received almost 1,000 emails from dissatisfied voters.[162] Science Minister George Freeman, said he was "shocked and flabbergasted" added that stories of "boozy" gatherings in No 10 had caused "serious damage" to public trust in the government. Maria Caulfield, a health minister, said that whether or not rules were "technically" breached, "the spirit of the rules" was broken: she would "consider what action is needed" after the report by Sue Gray.[163]

The Times reported that, on the evening of 18 January, more than 20 Conservative MPs first elected in 2019 had met to discuss Johnson's leadership, with some preparing to submit letters of no confidence after Prime Minister's Questions on 19 January.[164] The Evening Standard said that as many as 20 of the MPs were preparing to submit the letters.[165] This was dubbed the 'Pork Pie Plot' (or 'Putsch'[166]) by a Johnson loyalist minister as one of the alleged MPs involved, Alicia Kearns, represents Rutland and Melton, the town of Melton Mowbray being famous for its pork pies. Kearns has denied being an organiser of the rebellion.[167] The Daily Mirror quickly re-dubbed it the 'Porkie Pie Plot' in reference to Johnson (in the UK, "porkie pie" is rhyming slang for a lie).[168]

On 19 January, Bury South MP Christian Wakeford publicly announced that he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Johnson's leadership as a result of the scandal.[169] Later that day, shortly before Prime Minister's Questions, Wakeford defected from the Conservative Party to the Labour Party,[170] although his first contact with Labour predated the controversy and he was initially motivated by other issues.[171]

At the end of Prime Minister's Questions, Conservative former minister David Davis dramatically called for Johnson to resign, quoting Leo Amery calling on Neville Chamberlain to resign during the Norway Debate in 1940, and saying: "You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go." (The words are originally attributed to Oliver Cromwell.) BBC Newsnight's Political Editor Nick Watt said it was an "extraordinarily significant moment" and that Davis would have intended it to be "particularly devastating" to Johnson.[172][173]

By the end of 19 January, some Conservative MPs told the BBC that Wakeford's defection had caused a change in mood, namely that there was a "stepping back" from immediate attempts to obtain a no-confidence vote in Johnson's leadership and a wish to wait until after Sue Gray's report was published.[171][174][175]

Alleged intimidation of MPs opposed to Johnson[edit]

On 20 January, Conservative MP William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, accused 10 Downing Street staff of threatening him and other colleagues over their opposition to Johnson's leadership. He said "the intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter" and "The reports of which I'm aware would seem to constitute blackmail."[176] Wragg claimed damaging publicity had been threatened, as had removal of government investment in MPs’ constituencies.[177]

Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said, "These are grave and shocking accusations of bullying, blackmail, and misuse of public money and must be investigated thoroughly".[178] Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Standards, Chris Bryant, said roughly a dozen Tory MPs had made similar allegations of whips threatening to withdraw funding for their constituencies in the past few days; threats included withholding funds for campaigning and infrastructure such as by-passes and schools.[179] Bryant said, “I have even heard MPs alleging that the prime minister himself has been doing this. What I have said to all of those people is that that is misconduct in public office. The people who should be dealing with such allegations are the police. It is illegal. We are meant to operate as MPs without fear or favour. The allocation of taxpayer funding to constituencies should be according to need, not according to the need to keep the prime minister in his job.”[126] Bryant also said, “We are not the United States. We don’t run a ‘pork barrel’ system. It is illegal.”[180]

Opinion polls[edit]

Results of opinion polling carried out in Great Britain of voting intention for the governing Conservatives and official opposition Labour, over the period since the controversy began. Each dot represents the party's vote share in a single opinion poll. [181]

Opinion polling in early December 2021 found that the majority of the public believed that a party had taken place at Downing Street in December 2020 and that this was not permitted under the restrictions in place at the time.[182][183][184] The controversy was seen as a factor in the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson's declining rates of public support in December 2021.[144][185][186][187] Various polls throughout late 2021 and early 2022 suggested that a majority of voters wanted Johnson to resign as Prime Minister over the controversy.[186][188][189] After Johnson apologised for the 20 May 2020 gathering, one poll indicated that 68% of the public considered his apology not to have been sincere.[190]

By 14 January 2022, YouGov polling found 72% of the British public held an unfavourable view of Johnson, a record low for his tenure and surpassing the lowest popularity of Theresa May during her premiership.[191] The revelations in January 2022 saw the Conservatives fall further in the polls, with Labour having a lead of around 10 points.[81]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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