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How the Partygate evidence finally became impossible for the Met Police to ignore


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra

The biggest political scandals often turn out to be slow burners, starting off with a whiff of smoke and smouldering for weeks before crackling into flame.

Just as Watergate began with a down-page story in The Washington Post two years before US president Richard Nixon was eventually impeached, Partygate seemed to pose little threat to Boris Johnson when a report of drinks events within Downing Street during lockdown first appeared last November.

For almost a week, No 10 batted away questions relating to “leaving drinks” and an alleged Christmas party.

The controversy seemed to be running out of steam until a video emerged of staff joking that they might be explained away as “business meetings”.

Almost two months on, the British prime minister finds himself at the centre of a criminal investigation after Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, decided she could no longer overlook a growing list of allegations that show no sign of abating.

It is understood the police are looking into eight out of 17 alleged “parties” to have emerged since November. They took place during 11 months, from May 2020 to April 2021.

News of the police investigation prompted panic in Downing Street, where senior staff are well aware that if the prime minister is fined for breaking lockdown rules he must surely resign.

At first, it was seen as a brief stay of execution, as officials assumed the police inquiry would delay publication of the Cabinet Office report into alleged lockdown parties in Whitehall being conducted by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant.

However, by lunchtime that position had changed, with officials telling journalists that Ms Gray would be able to publish, at her own convenience, parts of her internal inquiry’s report that are not relevant to the police investigation.

Behind the scenes, that appeared to have triggered a three-way row between No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Met, after Ms Dick made it clear that she had no objection to Ms Gray publishing her report in full this week, and Downing Street was forced to fend off accusations that it was trying to block early publication of the report.

For weeks, the police had been reluctant to get dragged into a high-stakes investigation involving the prime minister, but the turning point came on Sunday when the Met received an outline of the initial findings by Ms Gray.

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On the same day, a source revealed Ms Gray had spoken to Met officers stationed at Downing Street who had given “damning” witness statements about events that happened there during lockdown.

After a team of officers assessed the information sent to them by Ms Gray, Ms Dick was consulted and further inquiries were made.

Yesterday she finally dropped the bombshell that her officers were now investigating “potential breaches of Covid regulations” over the previous two years within Downing Street and Whitehall.

Ominously for the prime minister, Ms Dick made clear that one of the criteria for investigating possible breaches that happened in the past is that “those involved knew or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence”.

Mr Johnson initially responded to reports of parties at his place of work and domicile by saying that he was unaware of them happening.

Then, when it emerged that he had attended a drinks event, he stated that he believed it was a work event and that no one had suggested to him it was “against the rules”.

The Met had done its utmost to stay out of the Partygate row.

On December 8, the day that Mr Johnson asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to conduct an inquiry, the Met said it had looked at all the details but it “does not provide evidence of a breach of the Health Protection Regulations”.

At that point, a week after the initial reports of lockdown parties appeared in the Daily Mirror, ITV News had just been leaked a recording of the prime minister’s staff joking about a “Christmas party” during a rehearsal for a press conference.

Allegra Stratton then resigned as Mr Johnson’s press secretary over the footage which showed her laughing about the “fictional party” and saying it was “a business meeting... and it was not socially distanced”.

By December 16, there had been a subtle change in the Met’s position. Following reports of further get-togethers in the Department for Education and at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, where London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was pictured surrounded by activists, the Met said it would be “making contact with two people” who attended the CCHQ event on December 14, 2020, though it maintained its stance that there was no “evidence of a breach”.

By December 17, Mr Case had recused himself from the Cabinet Office investigation after it emerged a “party” had happened in his office, and the following day Ms Gray took over the task.

The Christmas break appeared to have taken the heat out of the row, but on January 7 Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, revealed up to 100 people had been invited to a garden party on May 20, 2020, in an email from Martin Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary.

Days later, ITV News followed up with a smoking gun, as it published Mr Reynolds’s email invitation that said: “Bring your own booze.”

Even at this late stage, the official response from the Met was that it was “aware of widespread reporting” of the May 20 get-together and was “in contact with the Cabinet Office” but there was no suggestion it was about to change its position.

Then came the January 14 revelation that two leaving parties had been held in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, followed by the news, on Monday this week, that the prime minister had attended a celebration for his 56th birthday organised in the Cabinet Room by wife Carrie on June 19, 2020.

Ms Gray already knew about the prime minister’s birthday get-together, meaning the police did as well when they decided to launch an investigation.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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