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Explainer: Everything we know about Boris Johnson’s alleged Downing Street lockdown parties


Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Tilbury Docks in Essex, England. Photo: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Tilbury Docks in Essex, England. Photo: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Tilbury Docks in Essex, England. Photo: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

Boris Johnson remains trapped in a fight for his political life as public anger festers over reports of a series of rule-breaking Downing Street parties that allegedly took place while the rest of the country was in lockdown to thwart the coronavirus pandemic.

The British prime minister’s fate now appears to hang on the outcome of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry into the affair.

Having initially said in December he was “sickened” at the prospect of Downing Street employees ignoring social restrictions, Mr Johnson found himself sidestepping questions about whether he personally attended an event on May 20, 2020.

ITV News had reported that the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had invited over 100 people by email to a “bring your own booze” bash in the grounds of the PM’s Westminster residence that day “to take advantage of the lovely weather”.

At the time of the alleged gathering, strict controls on social mixing were in place, prohibiting households from intermingling, schools were shut to most pupils and pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, sports stadia, cinemas and theatres were all closed.

So strict were the rules at the time that police prosecuted people for having parties in their own homes, erected random checkpoints in some areas and, in Derbyshire, used drones to monitor beauty spots in the interest of shutting down illicit picnics.

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Police forces in England and Wales issued 14,244 fines for breaches of lockdown laws between March 27 and May 11, 2020, according to figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, also breaking up political demonstrations and social meet-ups in open areas like Hyde Park in central London in the interest of stopping the spread of the virus.

An hour before the gathering in question is understood to have taken place, Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden had told members of the public via a live news conference about the Covid-19 outbreak: “You can meet one person outside your household in an outdoor, public place, provided that you stay two metres apart.”

People would not be allowed to meet outside in groups of six until June 1.

Nevertheless, Mr Johnson and his then-partner (now wife) Carrie Johnson were among 30-40 people alleged to have attended the garden party in blithe indifference to the hardships the electorate were enduring, having responded to Mr Reynolds’ cheery invite email.

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According to ITV, to whom a copy was leaked, it read: “Hi all. After what has been an incredibly busy period, it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”

A source told The Independent the prime minister had indeed “hung out” with staff for at least an hour as they knocked back drinks.

Not all recipients were so keen to attend, however, with one staff member responding: “Is this for real?” Another, according to the BBC, texted: “Um. Why is Martin [Reynolds] encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?”

The bash was scheduled just five days after another cheese-and-wine social reportedly took place in the same venue, an event that is already the subject of Ms Gray’s investigation (she was appointed to replace Cabinet secretary Simon Case after he recused himself from the probe after it was revealed he had known about a festive quiz held within his own department), along with at least four more social events.

A source also told The Independent there were “more parties” that would come to light if Ms Gray “gets the info she ought to get”.

However, they added that it was “deeply wrong” that officials should “get the blame” when their actions were sanctioned by the prime minister.

“He was there for [the parties],” they said. “He encouraged people to drink and drank himself. And it was a clear untruth for No 10 to suggest that there was nothing that could be described as [a party]. It was shocking that they even tried to claim that.”

These events, both indoors and outdoors at No 10, took place on several occasions and were “most definitely not work meetings”, they added.

Which is interesting because when Mr Johnson did finally address the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions on January 12 in the House of Commons, he confirmed that he had attended 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.”

He apologised, expressed empathy for the public fury in light of the personal sacrifices millions had made and implored his critics to await the outcome of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgement.

That cut little ice with opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer who described the prime minister as a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road” and “without shame”, derided his mea culpa as “worthless” following “months of deceit and deception” and called on him to resign, the seething disdain in his voice drawing chuckles of laughter from across parliament while members of Mr Johnson’s frontbench sat stoney-faced behind their Covid masks.

Since then, news of more parties have emerged, with The Daily Telegraph reporting that Downing Street staff attended two separate events on April 16, 2021, the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, which saw the Queen sit alone in accordance with strict Covid rules as she bade farewell to her husband of 73 years.

Both events are said to have been leaving parties for staff working in the prime minister’s inner team. One was reportedly held for James Slack, Mr Johnson’s then-director of communications, and the other for his personal photographer.

Witnesses said that “excessive alcohol” was drunk, attendees danced to music DJ’d by a special adviser beyond midnight and, at one point, a staffer was sent out to the local branch of Co-op to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.

Further reports alleged that Ms Johnson attended a friend’s rule-breaking engagement celebration in September 2020, prompting her to apologise for a “lapse in judgement”, and that the prime minister gave an address at another leaving do in December 2020, this time for defence adviser Captain Steve Higham.

The PM has since mounted an even more preposterous defence of his actions, telling Sky News in relation to the May 20 party that “nobody warned me it was against the rules”, rather overlooking the fact that he himself had set them.

Mr Johnson, who won a landslide victory in the December 2019 general election just prior to the onset of the pandemic, has faced intense scrutiny over the affair over the past six weeks after a video emerged showing his staff laughing and joking about having hosted a secret Christmas party during the 2020 winter lockdown, which prompted the tearful resignation of spokesperson Allegra Stratton last month.

Subsequent allegations have followed concerning a string of parties that appear to have taken place in 2020, also including leaving dos for seniors aides Lee Cain (November 13) and Cleo Watson (November 27) and a series of departmental Christmas parties in December, including one at which former Conservative London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was pictured (December 14) and the virtual festive quiz in which the PM himself took part via Zoom (December 15).

This serialised scandal following on from Tory sleaze allegations, questions over the awarding of lucrative Covid contracts and inconsistencies in accounts of how the cost of the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s own flat was met has garnered popular derision, prompting ridicule from comedians and TV personalities and criticism from the opposition.

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